French GP debrief with Martin Whitmarsh
It was a difficult French Grand Prix weekend for the McLaren Mercedes team. Lewis Hamilton received no less than 2 penalties while team mate Heikki Kovalainen received a grid penalty as well for impending Webber during the qualifying session. Martin Whitmarsh debriefs the French weekend:
Did the aero modifications you made for this weekend bring you the improvement in laptime you had anticipated?
“It's always difficult to verify precisely the benefits that have been made because you rarely run a back-to-back test at the racetrack to quantify the gains you make. However, looking at our performance during the race when we were running in clear air and with heavy fuel-loads, I'd say our pace was reasonably promising. That would suggest we were competitive over the French Grand Prix weekend and had managed to improve the car.”
Are there further mechanical and aerodynamic improvements coming ahead of the Santander British Grand Prix?
“As a team, we are committed to bringing 0.15s of laptime improvement to each race. We have a three-day test at Silverstone this week and are planning to introduce a range of upgrades that we feel will deliver that performance improvement.
"We introduced quite a lot of aerodynamic components in France, including a new front wing assembly, top wing, winglets and front hub system, which were worth around 0.26s per lap. Over the summer, we are not only looking at making further aero and mechanical upgrades but also fuel and lubricants improvements as we seek to boost overall performance in every area.”
Before the race, what sort of strategic options were available to the team in order to move Lewis up from his 13th position on the grid? What result could have been possible without the drive-through penalty?
“With Lewis, we knew we could alternate between a two- or three-stop strategy. For qualifying, we had hoped to put him on the front row but ended up third. Given the 10-place penalty, even from 13th on the grid we could have two- or three-stopped depending on whether we could put him out in free air. In the end, we ran an enforced three-stop strategy due to his drive-through penalty - and that affected him strategically. After his penalty, he came out behind Nakajima and, once he was past, became the fastest guy in the race. It was a strong and powerful stint.
"Similarly, Heikki proved extremely quick when he was able to run freely and came very close to a podium. Given how close we came to finishing in the top three - in a race in which we dealt with three penalties - this was a very good result. We come away from Magny-Cours with Lewis only five points behind Raikkonen and 10 behind Massa. To achieve this after a disappointing series of events just shows how much the championship can swing round in one race weekend.”
Before taking his penalty, was Lewis asked over the radio to drop back and cede the position back to Vettel?
“We weren't aware that the incident was questionable until a number of laps later when it was displayed on our monitors that Car 22 was under investigation. At that point, we asked the FIA for a clarification and were informed of the incident at Turn Seven. When the footage was replayed, it looked to us as if Lewis was comfortably past the other car before he straightlined the chicane. We expressed our opinion to the FIA but, by that point it was not possible to ask Lewis to drop back and relinquish the position. If somebody had told us about it at the time, we would have asked the race director if he wanted us to give the place back. In the cockpit, Lewis felt he was already ahead when he made the mistake and didn't feel it was an issue to raise with the team.”
Initial reaction to the drive-through penalty from both Lewis and the team's management was less than glowing. What's your view 24 hours later?
“Clearly, we were disappointed and frustrated at the time: everybody in the team had worked so hard over the past fortnight to enable us to go into this race with the best possible opportunity to overcome Lewis's 10-place grid penalty. On the pitwall, we were of the opinion that Lewis had made his pass before going wide at Turn Seven, but the lack of multiple camera angles covering the incident made it hard to judge accurately. This meant that, at the end of the day, this was going to be a judgment call. We made our views known to the race director and felt passionately at the time that Lewis had made a fair move. But the referee's decision is always final - and we are happy to follow that ruling. Was it a difficult decision to hear? Yes, because we had been fighting with so much conviction to overcome the grid penalty. But was it hard to accept the decision? Not at all, because we fully accept that in this instance the guys on the pitwall didn't have all the information available to the stewards working in the calm and quiet of the race control office.”
From 10th on the grid to fourth in the race, Heikki's race was very impressive. How do you rate his progress as we head to Silverstone?
“Not only was Heikki fuelled longer than anybody who qualified ahead of him, but we were also heavier than anybody who was subsequently placed ahead of him on the grid due to his penalty. That puts his qualifying performance in proper perspective and shows just what an outstanding job he did in Q3.
"He also did a great job to overcome the disappointment of his demotion on Saturday to drive a fantastic, attacking race at a circuit that's notorious for its difficulty to overtake. He only really had one or two opportunities to run in free air and he grabbed them with both hands. Between laps 42-52, he was the quickest guy on the circuit; and immediately after his second stop, on laps 52-57, he galloped up to Trulli and really hounded him to the flag.
"Unfortunately, if his tyres hadn't grained slightly in the closing laps we feel confident he could have got past. But it was a testament to him that he didn't risk the positions of either himself or Trulli during that battle and I'm sure he'll come away from this race pleased with his efforts but regretting that he couldn't have started higher up the grid.”
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes now gears up for one of its home races - the Santander British Grand Prix. What makes this race so special?
“Along with our colleagues at Mercedes-Benz, we have a number of home races, one of which is the Santander British Grand Prix. It's an important race for everybody in the team: people assume that a lot of our staff attend every race, but Silverstone is where we welcome a large number of employees from Woking and Brixworth. These are the people who put in the hours, toil and sweat to turn us into a race-winning grand prix team so it is always a special moment to perform well in front of them.”