Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team Principal Martin Whitmarsh speaks exclusively to Formula1.com (Official F1 website).
Q: This time last year the MP4-26’s mediocre testing form must have already forced you to lower your sights for 2011. But it turned out to be a pretty decent season for you all the same. How is the MP4-27 shaping up? What is your gut feeling?
MW: I recognize the point you’re making, but first I want to say a bit about 2011, which as you say was a pretty decent year. Very few Formula One teams ever win a Grand Prix, and yet even in a year which you’ve described as ‘pretty decent’ but no better than that, we won six out of the 19 Grands Prix – a strike rate of roughly one win in every three Grands Prix.
That strike rate more than maintains McLaren’s all-time strike rate of one win every four Grands Prix, or 175 wins from 703 Grands Prix, since 1966. We’re proud of that strike-rate, but of course this season we aim to improve on it again. At this time of year, before testing has begun, you never know how well your car is going to perform relative to its principal opposition.
And I’m well aware that Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes AMG, as well as all the other teams, are working just as hard on their 2012 cars as we are. But, bearing in mind that unknown variable – in other words the performance of our competitors’ cars – all I can say with any certainty is that the MP4-27 is a logical evolution of the MP4-26, adapted to the new technical regulations, and that from what we can discern its development is going in the right direction.
Q: The MP4-27 will take to the test track for the first time on February 7 with Jenson Button rather than Lewis Hamilton at the wheel. Should we read anything into that?
MW: Not at all, no. As you’d expect, with pre-season testing as restricted as it is nowadays, our race drivers will be doing as much as they can. Both Jenson and Lewis will consequently be spending a lot of time in Spain over the next few weeks, and both of them are raring to go. We’re fortunate that we have two world champions in our driver line-up – a claim that can be made by no other team – and McLaren’s ethos has always been, and remains, to treat both its drivers as equal number-ones.
That’s what we’ve always done, that’s what we’ll do this year, and as long as I’m around that’s what we’ll always do. So, to answer your question specifically, it just so happens that our pre-season testing schedule has Jenson driving on the first day and Lewis on the second day, but it could just as easily have been the other way around.
Q: Kimi Raikkonen is back in Formula One racing this year with Lotus. From your long experience of him, how do you think he’ll fare?
MW: Kimi is a great guy, with a super talent. He was very successful during his five seasons at McLaren, winning 12 Grands Prix for us and, although he narrowly failed to win a drivers’ world championship during that time, he could easily have become world champion in both 2003 and 2005 if he’d had a bit more luck or a little more reliability.
Even as things were, without that extra bit of luck and reliability required to win world championships, he still won 12 Grands Prix for us and some of those wins were truly majestic. During an FIA press conference at a Grand Prix in the latter half of last year – I forget where – I was asked by a journalist whether the team principals of the teams then rumoured to be considering Kimi for a 2012 drive, a couple of whom were sitting alongside me, should hire him or not. My answer was an unequivocal yes. I stand by that answer, and I’m pleased that he’s made a Formula One comeback.
He’s a very popular driver, and I think Formula One will be the better for his return. No fewer than six world champions will be competing in Formula One this season – more than ever before – and each of them, including Kimi, is not only a fantastic racing driver but also a colourful character with a robust fans’ following and a unique global allure. If the Lotus car is quick, Kimi will be quick in it; it’s as simple as that in my view.
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