McLaren’s 2009 car, the MP4-24, has hardly set the world alight with its pace during pre-season testing. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh and Mercedes’ Norbert Haug, however, are not feeling downhearted. Instead, both are confident that with enough hard work over the coming weeks, the British team will solve the car’s issues and muscle their way back into the leading pack…
Q: How is testing going at the moment?
Martin Whitmarsh: Initial testing of MP4-24, which first ran with an interim aero package, went in accordance with our early developmental expectations. This week the car has run in Barcelona with an updated aero package, as we had always planned it would, and a performance shortfall has been identified that we are now working hard to resolve.
Norbert Haug: We are definitely not where we want to be. We will continue our test programme next week at Jerez for another four days. But it will take time to improve.
Q: Is the MP4-24 fast enough?
MW: Not at the moment - and certainly not by our team's extremely high standards. But Lewis (Hamilton) is the reigning world champion, and he became world champion in one of our cars. So anything less than success at that level is naturally regarded as unsatisfactory by us, by our partners, by the media and by the fans. Having said that, McLaren has started 648 grands prix. We have won 162 of them and have recorded 431 podium finishes. We are proud of our record and have faith in our engineers' ability to work hard to get MP4-24 into a position to add to that record. They are already engaged in doing exactly that.
NH: Not for the time being. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to improve the technical package.
Q: What are MP4-24's problems?
MW: It is a combination of factors. Our Mercedes-Benz engine is strong - we saw that last year - so MP4-24's performance shortfall is clearly chassis-centric. Inevitably, in 21st-century Formula One, it is a car's aero aspect that confers the greatest pluses and minuses to its overall performance package, and that would appear to be the case with MP4-24. But Formula One engineers can do great things when the pressure is on. Speaking to them today, I was struck by their resolute determination to address MP4-24's issues in record time. In fact, it is that kind of resolute determination, coupled with expertise and experience of ultra-high technology and the ability to work accurately and quickly under pressure, that makes Formula One the great sport and the tremendous engineering challenge it is.
NH: Obviously, there is a lack of downforce and we are currently working hard to solve this problem. Basically, the car feels good - that is what our drivers say. However, we are currently definitely not fast enough, not competitive enough to aim for victories.
Q: Is the adoption of KERS central to MP4-24's problems?
MW: KERS has been a tremendous engineering challenge for all the teams - but I am sure that every engineer in the pit lane has relished that challenge. Our engineers and the engineers at Mercedes-Benz HighPerformanceEngines have created an extremely impressive KERS unit. Inevitably, some teams adapt to all-new technologies better or faster than others, and in some ways the positioning in a car's chassis of its KERS system is as influential on overall performance as is any other aspect of it. But I would not say that any of the issues we are working on with regard to the performance of MP4-24 are caused by KERS.
NH: The development of KERS went without significant problems and so far did not hamper the progress of MP4-24's development at all. Our KERS system is working well and the team is happy with the results.
Q: Whose fault is MP4-24's lack of speed?
MW: In this team, we operate a responsibility culture, not a blame culture. In other words, we perform a root cause analysis of a problem, and then we fix that problem. Apportioning blame plays no part in that process. All our engineers know their responsibilities and work very hard to fulfil them. Ron (Dennis), Norbert and I, as the team's senior management, have enormous faith in the ability of our engineers, and we are working as hard as they are to make MP4-24 competitive enough to win grands prix.
NH: The development of a car is a concerted team effort to which many individuals contribute. There is no fault to be attributed to a single person. McLaren and Mercedes-Benz are partners; we live this partnership. In difficult times you see how good a partnership is, and ours is a good one.
Q: Are MP4-24's problems fixable?
MW: Of course. Many times in Formula One history have successful teams started off with a car that was not working as well as they had hoped it would, and many times have those successful teams engineered their way back to the front of the grid in impressively short order. That is what we aim to do. In fact, that is what we are already doing.
NH: We have fixed problems together in the past and we will succeed in doing it again. Expect us to fight back even if it takes some time. If we were not be capable of building competitive Formula One cars, we would not have won one third of all grands prix during the past four years.
Q: Will MP4-24's problems be fixed in time for the Australian Grand Prix?
MW: Next week we will be testing at Jerez, which many of our rivals will not be. We aim to continue to develop the car, and the result should be measurable on the stopwatch. Will MP4-24 be as quick as we want it to be by March 29 (the date of the Australian Grand Prix)? Perhaps not. Will it be quicker than it has been this week at the Barcelona test? Yes. Will it improve as we develop its aero and thereby address its problems in the coming weeks and months? Most certainly.
NH: We are working hard to improve. However, it might take us a few races to significantly improve.
Q: Are the MP4-24's problems a result of Ron stepping back from the team principal role?
MW: In a word, no. Ron, Norbert and I have worked very well together as a senior management team for some years now, and the result has been a considerable level of success. Our operational management team has run very well throughout the period of our recent success, and it still does. The handover of the job title 'Team Principal' from Ron to me has been largely symbolic, as both he and I have made clear when questioned about it these past few weeks.
NH: Definitely not. Ron is Chairman and CEO, and remains fully involved. Ron, Martin and I have worked together as the responsible management team for 14 years. We trust each other.
Q: What effect would a poor season have on Mercedes-Benz's commitment to Formula One in an ongoing economic downturn?
MW: Mercedes-Benz is the most fantastic partner any team could ever hope for. We always say, 'We win as a team and we lose as a team.' That is true. And I am utterly certain that, once we have ironed out the issues that MP4-24 currently faces, we will win as a team again.
NH: The Mercedes-Benz Formula One programme is a long-term commitment. With Lewis Hamilton we won the world championship last year. Our partnership has won three drivers' titles and one constructors' title so far, and we will be back fighting for more championships even if it takes some time this year. We have demonstrated in the past that we can win against the strongest opposition and we will work very hard to prove this again.