Thursday's press conference at Monaco again hosted four team principals. BMW Sauber's Mario Theissen, Force India principal Vijay Mallya, Mercedes motorsport director Norbert Haug and Frank Williams give their opinion on their team and the current state of Formula One.
Q: A question to you all. What are your feelings about the new regulations for this year? How they’ve worked, whether they’ve worked. Are they good or bad? Have they done what they were supposed to do?
Mario THEISSEN: My personal feeling is that they have not done what they ought to do. From the fans perspective it is certainly an exciting championship. We have a fresh pecking order, unexpectedly. But even more important the field has come very close together, just the opposite of what most people expected with the new regulations. If you look back in Bahrain, (Jarno) Trulli dominated qualifying, in Barcelona he just slipped in as P15 into Q2 with a gap of only 0.7 of a second behind the first, so that means nobody is safe. It is very exciting for the spectator and for us, sometimes too exciting. You see that almost every team goes out on two sets of fresh options even in first qualifying in order to make it into the second run. That is a scenario which no-one expected and which we haven’t seen in the past 10 years, so I think that is the upside. On overtaking maybe we had expected a bit more from the new regulations and on cost saving I think it has met about the expectations. The aero restrictions we currently have are not as tight as we thought they would be, so I think we could do more at this end.
Vijay MALLYA: I agree with what Mario said in terms of the racing being a lot more competitive, far more spectator-friendly from that point of view. For the smaller teams we have had a chance to close the gap quite significantly compared to previous years. I saw a couple of drivers who were actually quicker this year than last year which perhaps was not quite the intention. But having said that I think the 2009 regulations provided a good platform and base. As you well know there are further discussions continuing on how to deal with 2010 and beyond.
Norbert HAUG: I think it was fine so far. I think the chances and circumstances have been the same for everybody. Obviously some teams have been more busy towards the end of the year than during the season but this is not an excuse, it just explains a little bit that some cars on the track right now put more effort in but that is fair enough, that is how it is. We all need to play a little bit catch-up and I think lots of people have been surprised by the high level of the competitiveness of the new cars as Mario pointed out already and Vijay as well. The order is mixed. I think there were no presents made. Of course there were a lot of discussions about the diffuser but at the end of the day this is behind us. I think we saw some exciting races. The last one, Barcelona, was never a very interesting race in history. This is how things are. It is a challenging track and very demanding for the cars, especially for the aerodynamic of the cars and a mixture of everything. But it tends to be very boring around there and the last race was very similar, let’s say. But generally speaking I think we have seen more overtaking manoeuvres. I saw a statistic, so it is heading in the right direction. In fairness we have to admit that none of the KERS cars is currently in a position to win races and I think if that would be the case, or if you would think about a combination of very good car with very good KERS then that would probably be a different story. I hope obviously that we will be the ones that can move quickly in that direction, but catching up is a difficult process and certainly not achievable in a couple of weeks. It is rather months than weeks, so we need to be patient. Looking now at the results I think this is not a typical race track. We have always been quite good and quite strong around here, won quite a few races in the last years. But this is not a typical race track, so I think the order will be very much the same in the next couple of races. But I would say I like it and I hope that with the political front we can come to a conclusion and then we will go back to the sport and concentrate on the sport and I think we have a great Formula basically.
Frank WILLIAMS: I share the same view as everyone else on this rostrum. The regulations have changed some of the order and KERS has made it easy for some and more difficult for others, nothing wrong with that. I think the two wet races also made a good contribution to the excitement that the television viewers have seen and more of the same please.
Q: A question to you all again. Your feelings about the cost cap that has been imposed? Should it be more, should it be less?
MT: For us it is not so much a question of one figure to be put on the table. We think the issue is much more complex and needs good thought. It needs to be thought through well. It is about getting teams who come from very different angles and very different starting positions and getting them together on one cost down slope, give them enough time to arrive finally at the same position without losing either the smallest or the biggest team, so it is quite challenging and what we currently have is a budget cap being linked to a certain set of regulations which makes it even more difficult. I think this has to be sorted out. We are working on that and I hope we can come to a conclusion which satisfies all the stakeholders in Formula One.
VM: Every single business perhaps in the world under the current economic circumstances is being re-engineered and restructured and the focus is to reduce costs. Why should Formula One be an exception, so Force India is certainly well in favour in reducing the costs to levels that are affordable and whether it is in the form of a cap, what that cap should be or whether there are progressive initiatives as Mario just mentioned to arrive at an acceptable figure for all teams and the FIA is something we are currently working on. But clearly as far as Force India is concerned, whether you call it a budget cap or call it a targeted amount to be spent, that is very, very essential or else the small independent teams will never be able to compete with those who have, in comparison, extraordinary budgets.
NH: I don’t want to repeat all of that. It was discussed a long time before and I think hopefully there is some time over the weekend. There is a Friday off, tomorrow at least no racing, no testing. Some meetings are on the schedule and I just hope that we can together make a step forward and then discuss it afterwards. There are possibilities but I think it needs to be a well thought through compromise and we are open for it.
Q: Frank, it does sound as if you are coming from a long way back and there is still a long way to go.
FW: Well, we are clearly wholly in support of it. It suits us. I would qualify what I said that we support it. It was a remark that to expect a major manufacturer to slash its spending by 300 per cent in four months is a very tall fiscal order and they may need some sort of glide path once the rule is finally agreed. But I repeat we need it.
Q: Mario, I don’t know if other people have gone forward or you have gone backwards but you seem to have started off the season better than you did in the last two or three races.
MT: Well, it has been different pictures in the past three races. Certainly in Bahrain that was clearly not the performance we can show and we have to show. Barcelona was quite okay given the short time we had to adapt to the new package and today I was not satisfied. Obviously we lost a lot of track time but then the performance of the car was not as it should be, so we have some work to do for Saturday. As Norbert said before this is not a typical track, the characteristics are quite different and you never know what to expect when you come here based on the previous races, so it is a special situation and I hope we can cope with it for the weekend.
Q: Vijay, this year you have taken on the role of Team Principal. How has that changed for you in comparison to your previous role as team owner?
VM: I don’t think anything has changed. I was equally involved last year as I am this year, so the title change hasn’t meant any definitive change in role or responsibility. Having said that we have reorganised the team significantly and made some top management changes. We have developed a car in a record period of just 120 days because we signed up with McLaren Mercedes in early November and produced the car that is reliable and has a good mechanical platform. In all we need to develop more on the aero front. We have not really had too much time to do either the development or of course testing following the in-season ban on testing. But we are certainly a lot more competitive than we have ever been in the last couple of years. We showed it in Shanghai, we showed it in Australia and I am optimistic that we are gradually getting there.
Q: Norbert, you are supplying three teams which in fact are across the board. How much of an advantage is that for Mercedes to be supplying three different teams?
NH: Well, it helps us to recover some costs. I think first of all you need to be in a position and obviously as Vijay pointed out we have a partnership with Force India on both chassis and engine and it was not the basic plan to supply another team. We only learned on the 5th of December that Brawn were looking for engines and as we all know we were not quite sure whether they would make it until the end of March. But I think the guys together form High Performance Engines and Brawn did a remarkable job in building and putting this engine in a car and the specialists here know what that means. It is not just like putting an engine in the car and pushing the starter and there you go. It’s a big achievement in a three month period. It is not easy but I think there was a lot of confidence involved. But still there is still some compromise, it is not the ideal fit yet but the car immediately was impressive and winning races. Of course this is very positive for the guys who are building the engines. Of course it is positive that we have won the world championship with the engine last year, so on that side it is very positive and we are very happy that we, so far, could deliver a good job to our customers and this is very important to us. But, knock on wood, there is always something that can happen, you never know. But we have lots of engines now and we have the experience but I think the logistics are in place and it is not too long a time ago when we were not on that level. If you remember 2004 in Bahrain for example, five years ago, in 2005 we probably lost the world championship because we needed to change the engine frequently then and as a result were put back 10 places on the grid. That has improved and I think that is very pleasing. I can just say thank you to the guys who worked very hard, so this is a positive side of the story. But of course we are very much focussed on getting the job done with McLaren. We are a 40 per cent shareholder, the biggest shareholder in the group. Lots of people are still thinking it is only a partnership but we are in the middle of it, so it is important for us to come back to where we used to be in the last couple of years. We are working very hard but as I said before it is a question of time. But so far on the engine side and KERS side we could be pleased I would say, very pleased.
Q: Frank, we have seen the two drivers being very competitive on Friday and Saturday mornings. Is there a certain frustration that those performances are not being translated into results on Sunday?
FW: Yeah, the word is showboating perhaps.
Q: I didn’t say that.
FW: Bit too much of that probably. Formula One always finds out the truth pretty quickly. If you are quick the race will tell you that you are quick or the public. In practice, you can fool people including yourself.
Q: Would you say your position is seventh and eighth places in the race on Sunday?
FW: That’s just unpredictable. The best was to review anything like that is to look at the results after each and every race, that’s why we are here.
Q: But there is a satisfaction. You are quite happy with it?
FW: I think I have just said I am not in those words.
Questions from the floor
Q: (Alan Baldwin – Reuters) Norbert, you said earlier that none of the cars with KERS were in a position to win races yet but looking at the times in practice, you would think that Lewis might have quite a good chance on Sunday. Do you think Lewis does have a chance?
NH: I hope so but I would not see us as the favourites currently. I’ve been to Monaco quite a few times and I think it’s always a good sign if a car goes out and it’s immediately amongst the fastest. This is basically the same on every race track, if you can achieve that that’s good but it’s even more important here because that shows that you have the right confidence and Lewis is not completely happy with the car and nor is Heikki but it was quite a good start. I think the team has a lot of competence in terms of the Monaco-type of race track but I wouldn’t make a prediction now. It’s so tight, 12 cars have been in one second, some used the option, some used two sets of option, some had higher fuel loads, some lower fuel loads. I think we will see a different order. Ferrari will be strong, that’s for sure. Brawn will be strong, Red Bull will be stronger than they have been and I think Renault, probably Toyota… it’s a handful and I think Williams will be seriously strong here. Not showboating but seriously strong!
Q: (Richard Williams – The Guardian) Question to Frank and Mario: in the recent days it’s emerged that Ferrari have appeared to have a right of unilateral veto over changes to the technical regulations in Formula One. Was this a surprise to either of you, had you known about it all along, do you think it’s the right thing to happen, that a team should be granted such rights?
FW: I’ll listen to Mario’s answer first.
MT: When FOTA was founded, we very quickly touched on the issue of the different positions of the individual teams. It was clear that the individual teams have different contracts with the FOA and we all accepted that. We knew about it and we said that everything that is in place is as it is and we deal with it and accept it as it is. In my view what Ferrari does now is in the interest of FOTA because they use the possibility to make the position of FOTA clear.
FW: Well, it’s a difficult subject to answer because a lawyer might say that this is a question that goes above the FIA to another international body but keeping it within the sport is probably not the best of the events. I think many of us thought it mainly made a commercial advantage and that would be what they deserve but given Ferrari’s longevity in the sport and being its backbone, it hasn’t caused any ruffled feathers or waves until now.
Q: (Ed Gorman – The Times) Question for Frank: to what extent is the current dispute in Formula One with the FIA actually about the rules for next season and the budget cap or to what extent is it really about the way in which Max Mosley has been handling his duties as president of the FIA and the style with which he’s discharged those duties? Because it seems that his personality and the way he’s operating is becoming more of a problem than the actual rules themselves.
FW: I think the biggest single issue that has caused the whole recent events to take place has been the imposition or wish to impose the budget cap. It’s to do with money.
Q: (Dan Knutson – National Speed Sport News) Norbert, Mercedes Benz has been winning a lot of Grands Prix the last few months. How much promotion and advertising are you doing about that?
NH: We are doing no advertising currently. In some countries it is mentioned but we do not have a special campaign for that. That’s the reality. We invest in the product, it’s not an easy time for the whole industry at the moment and I think it is well known amongst the people who are interested in motor sport that we are an engine partner that helps to win races but I think it is just a part of it. You need to be realistic. It’s a part of it, of course, the engine is important but I think that the people who are interested in who has won a race know exactly who it is.
Q: (Andrew Frankl – Forza) Vijay, you’ve mentioned world recession and problems and so on and so forth. How are things coming along with the Indian track?
VM: Fortunately India has not been hit as hard as other countries in this global meltdown. Surprisingly, India is still achieving a GDP growth of more than five and a half percent. After our recent elections, that concluded last week, our stock market appreciated by 17 percent. So things in India are a little bit different and not as bad as you see in several other parts of the world. The promoters of the Formula One track and associated commercial complex have actually acquired the land and have announced that post the elections we’ve just got over, they are actually going to lay the foundation stone and build that track, so I am very optimistic that it will be built on time and that we will have our first Formula One Grand Prix in India in 2011.
Q: (Richard Williams – The Guardian) Question for Norbert and Mario: back to the budget cap for a minute, given the nature of your organisations, do you think that any amount of forensic accountancy, however big the teams that were sent in, could make a realistic and accurate assessment of the amount that you spend on Formula One, or do you think perhaps it would be an opportunity to introduce further abuses of the system? Do you think it would be an easy system to abuse?
NH: It’s difficult. You have to start, Mario.
MT: I think whatever we do, if it’s a monetary figure or if it’s another form to cut resources, we have to police it and I think it can be policed. If we were not convinced it can be policed we wouldn’t expend any effort on it because then it wouldn’t make sense but I think it can be done with a bit of goodwill on all sides and the right spirit. It can be done.
NH: I agree, absolutely. We are used to having limited budgets, believe it or not and in our case, I can speak for all the industry, it’s very clear what money goes where and it’s absolutely documented properly and I think we need to sit together and find a solution and this is achievable. The trend is the right one. I think that’s the positive, the positive is that we have a good sport, that we have a good surprise at the race track after a great final last year, and I think we should never forget to speak about the sport. We had a championship decision in the last corner of the last lap. This is something that not only Bernie (Ecclestone) but all of us were dreaming of. I could have lived with the decision a race earlier, I have to say, but it was excellent for the sport and I think all of us, if you would have said in Brazil there will be a white car called Brawn with a Mercedes engine winning races, we would have said ‘how will that happen?’ And other things that have happened: Red Bull... whatever, or the classic teams – the Ferraris, McLaren Mercedes, BMWs – being challenged and not being that good at the beginning of the season, I think that’s great and that’s good for the sport. And the trend is to spend less money. Five years ago, here, we started this process in May 2004, I think it was the 24th of May or so, a special meeting at the Automobile Club de Monaco. There will be another meeting tomorrow, five years later, and since then, a lot of money has already been saved. In our case, definitely. I know the figures, I am responsible for all the finance and so this is the right direction and we will make another good step and then I think there is a good chance for a good future of Formula One. That’s what we need to concentrate on.
Q: (Oleg Karpov – Klaxon) Norbert, Felipe said at the Spanish Grand Prix that it will be impossible for him to fight for the championship. Do you think it’s still possible for Lewis to defend his title?
NH: Well, I think you have to believe that all the time but it makes no sense to make predictions. You are always working in the same direction to improve the car, to improve the whole package and a lot of surprises have happened in the past in Formula One. This is a very special formula, and as Mario pointed out, if you have 15 cars within seven tenths of a second, lots of things can happen. You look quite silly being 15th or 16th but gaining three, four, five tenths is difficult enough, but easier – believe me – than gaining 1.5s. So if you gain three, four, five tenths you are probably sixth or seventh and then if you have an aggressive strategy all of a sudden it plays into your hands. If you are not convinced and sometimes you probably need to have positive dreams and believe in it, I think it just makes no sense to sit down and say ‘well, I have no chances anymore.’ If somebody likes to do that, OK, but I am not sitting here and saying we are going to win the World Championship. It does not give me a tenth of a second and I think that is important but it gives us a tenth of a second if you are working hard, if we are believing in ourselves, if we support the people. There is obviously criticism within the team but it is very, very important that it is positive criticism and that you are steering things in the right direction. We didn’t win one race in 2006, for example. In 2007, we missed the championship by one point and in 2008 we won the championship. So things can turn around quickly. You need to have the substance, you need to believe in yourself and you need not to be arrogant, that does not help. You need to work very, very hard and this is what we are doing.
Q: (Jonathan Legard – BBC Sport) A question for all you, ahead of this meeting tomorrow. How real is Ferrari’s threat to leave Formula One, and how damaged would the sport be should they carry out that threat?
VM: I think that all teams want to make sure that everybody remains in Formula One. I don’t think anybody wants to see a team depart from Formula One, Ferrari included. And I’m sure it will work out a satisfactory solution going forward amongst FOTA members, with the FIA, with FOM. I think everybody recognises the value of the sport, the importance of the sport, everybody’s participation in the sport and certainly nobody wants to see any team leave, so I’m hoping that we will find a via media that keeps Ferrari in.
MT: Short answer: I think it is serious and there would be a big loss if Ferrari stepped out. Like Vijay, I think we need to work out a solution. Formula One is a very strong brand, a very strong platform. The stakeholders are benefitting from it, so there is really no point in destroying that platform.
FW: Well, Ferrari now don’t really need this help. They’re a very, very strong and wealthy team. It will be a great shame if they do go but if they go, I hope that it won’t be in a fit of pique. They’ve had many years under this Concorde Agreement and the previous one in a very privileged position, which if it had been known previously would not have gone down very well, I think, with the competition authorities in Brussels, so it would be better for them to put their cap on and come back inside.
NH: Well, obviously I think none of us can speak for Ferrari but one thing is for sure: I think I can express the same view. I think everybody wants Ferrari to stay in Formula One, the fans out in the world wish that and the teams wish it as well. I think what Mario said is right; Ferrari would not say things like that if they hadn’t carefully considered where they are. This is the message I get and this is what I know from the discussions we’ve obviously had within the teams, within FOTA. But still, I think everybody should work very hard to find solutions that this group of teams stays together. And as for new teams, I would very, very much support the idea of having new teams but you have to have a certain level – Frank is much more qualified than I am to describe, for example, what it takes to come into Formula One, and I think we should not underestimate that Formula One needs to have one set of rules because people want to see the best drivers in the best cars and I just cannot believe that people want to see an overtaking manoeuvre that is steered by the fact that you have a flatter rear wing than your competitor and things like that. I can see the background of that idea and I think there are some formulae like that. Sometimes in touring car racing or production car racing or whatever, there is no other way, no other chance than to go down that path but after a while you need to regroup, even in these formulae. I know that for example from DTM and then there must be one of set of rules for everybody because that is what is interesting. Is the car good enough, is the driver quicker than the other one? Even between team-mates, this is what makes Formula One and what has made Formula One great in the past. That is my feeling and I think my colleagues will see it the same and we should not underestimate that fact.