PART ONE: TEAM REPRESENTATIVES – Cyril ABITEBOUL (Renault), James ALLISON (Mercedes), Mattia BINOTTO (Ferrari)
Cyril, there’s been a lot of speculation regarding the future of Marcin Budkowski. Now, you have announced today that he is joining Renault. Could you elaborate a little bit on what he is going to be going for the team and how you came to get hold of him in the first place?
Cyril ABITEBOUL: Well, indeed, as you say the speculation and the rumour is part of the explanation of why we decided to make it official. We didn’t feel it was good actually to have any sort of ambiguity for any of the parties involved. It’s clear, and we appreciate, that it’s a sensitive topic for lots of parties, but it was important I think to present our side of the story. Marcin is coming in a non-technical capacity. He’s coming in a senior position into the team. I think it is a great career development for him. It’s something that he is doing because it makes sense in his career. As far as we are concerned, since we came back we are still building our team, building our structure. We tried something with Frédéric Vasseur last year, which, I mean it’s no secret, unfortunately did not work out, but Fred has now found a fantastic position with Sauber but there was still a gap and a position to be filled. Simply there is a lot to be done. Renault Sport Racing is involved in many different categories, Formula One but also Formula E, we are based on two sites, one in the UK and one in France, responsible for chassis and engine, supplying engines to lots of great teams with big expectations. So simply lots to do and I just needed some help and someone I can trust and that can work alongside me particularly on the development of the Enstone team.
Can you just remind us, when will he be starting with the team?
CA: Again, there has been lots of talk about that, not from us. We always made it clear that we would not want to be aggressive in relation to that. From a contractual perspective he could be available from early next year, but we have had a constructive discussion with the FIA and I believe that we are close to reaching an agreement on a start date that would I say make everyone comfortable. I think that is a date of early April, which is basically twice his gardening leave provision has been discussed, has been invoked. Nothing has been confirmed yet but that is something we are completely prepared to entertain as far as we are concerned.
If we look back to the Malaysian Grand Prix last weekend. It was a great victory for your engine. What does that win say about your power unit, and can you tell us a little about the development plans for next year? Is there going to be a qualifying mode, for example?
CA: Yes, I think it says that we are catching up progressively. We are not quite there at the level of the two gentlemen on my left and right, in particular. I think the Renault powerplant is actually becoming very decent in race operation, but indeed we are definitely missing something in qualifying. Obviously it’s always a balance running safe and being aggressive and obviously the more potential performance we have then the more capacity we will have to be aggressive on Saturdays. This is typically what’s on plan for next year, even though we believe also that the regulation will help us in bridging any sort of deficit in relation to that on Saturday. So it’s positive and I think it’s something that McLaren could also see and part of the decision of working with us for the next three years.
James, the last couple of races haven’t been the easiest for the team. I was just wondering if you could shed some light on those performances and how confident are you of running a little bit better this weekend at Suzuka?
James ALLISON: Well, they’re two weekends that showed that it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. Nevertheless, if you look at the season as a whole, it has been divided into three types of experience. There have been a few races where we have come out and crushed everything in front of us. There have been a few where we’ve had the other end of that deal, where we have definitely come off second best. And then a whole lot in the middle where it has been pretty much a 50/50 slugging match. The last two were in the category where we got beaten for pace. We’re hopeful from what we’ve seen so far this weekend that this one will not fall into that category, and that we will be putting up a decent fight of it, and I suspect that it will fall into the slugging match category that most of this season has been so thrilling to be part of for.
Where is the focus at the factory at the moment. The Constructors’ Championship looks pretty nailed on, so are you allowing yourself the luxury of focusing on next year back in Brackley?
JA: Well, I wouldn’t agree with you about the nailing business, but the truth of it is that every single team, every single year faces the dilemma of how they ramp down their efforts on the car that races and how they ramp up their efforts on the car that will race next year. Every single one of us, the teams that is, will be transferring a substantial amount of resource onto next year’s car, because they couldn’t fail but to do that. But there is still an amount of residual resource, more than residual, going into this one to make sure that those developments keep coming until later in the season.
Thank you James. Mattia, the last few races for Ferrari have been something of what if. I was just wondering, with reference to Malaysia in particular, if you could shed any light on the reliability problems you had there and how confident you are that you have solved those coming into the Japanese Grand Prix?
Mattia BINOTTO: You can never be fully confident of solving the problems you have got. It’s true that the problems we had were completely unexpected; there are problems that we did not experience both at the dyno or at the race track during the entire season. There were some quality issues with the parts. We failed an inlet manifold of the engine, from the compressor to the cylinder heads, and it happened twice, because we had the same problem with Sebastian in qualifying and Kimi in the race. Obviously it happened twice in Malaysia, in an entire season, so certainly some boundary conditions have affected the overall reliability. This is something that we are analysing. Obviously in parallel we reinforce the components, but it’s something which we still need to better understand.
The last couple of race we haven’t been able to see what your cars have been capable of, but fastest in practice in Suzuka this morning. How do you assess the pecking order now in Formula One? Do you think you have the fastest car?
MB: I think qualifying is the best way, somehow, to evaluate it. We had the pole in Singapore, true, but we were not on pole in Malaysia. So I think we have progressed, we progressed through the season. I think for us battling for the pole, or being on pole was more difficult at the start of the season compared to today. Overall our package has improved but it’s never enough. Being fast is not sufficient. What counts is finally winning the race.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Cyril, regarding Marcin Budkowksi, do we understand that he will reporting directly to you and then people like Bob Bell and Rob White will be reporting to Marcin. Is that the structure that you envisage?
CA: Yeah, that’s correct. The official position as announced today is Executive Director, so he will be sort of my right-hand man in Enstone, a place where I am not enough, given all the travelling and in particular the long seasons. So Marcin will be factory-based and Bob Bell, Nick Chester and Rob White will all together report to him.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Mattia, Sergio Marchionne was quoted on Monday as saying that it was unacceptable what had happened in the previous two races and that changes would have to be made. When this was put to Sebastian yesterday, he said he thought that there were some changes coming but they had nothing to do with that. Could you elaborate on that? What sorts of changes are envisaged that if a driver knows about them, they must have been announced internally already?
MB: I think that to improve your performance you need to improve your car and your package but as well you need to improve your organisation. What we are considering is something, already planned, is to improve our quality department. Our quality department will be and somehow is already reinforced and those are the changes that our chairman was meaning.
Q: (Jens Nagler – Bild) James, Lewis referred to the car as being a bit like him – great potential, but doesn’t always do what it has to do. Is the car a kind of a diva or is it, in the end, understandable, what it does?
JA: It is difficult but it doesn’t disobey the laws of physics. It is clearly understandable but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get the best from it. It’s been a challenge this year to achieve the results we have with, but nevertheless we have achieved some pretty decent outcomes with it, so it’s not been a bad machine for us. However, we would like a car that is easier to throw at the race track and easier to guarantee that every time we come racing we get every last little bit from it. Such changes as we have been able to make this year we have and we hope that next year we make something with a slightly sweeter temperament.
Q: (Dan Knutson – Auto Action and Speedsport) To all three of you: going into this year there were a lot of unknowns, so it was difficult to design the cars. Going into next year, with all the new information, is it going to be easier to design them or even harder because you have so much information about the new regulations?
MB: F1 is always a challenge, the difficulty is always there, whatever you are facing. We face a certain because of new regulations and now we’ll face a different difficulty because we need to improve our car. I don’t think there is ever a moment where you can relax. The difficult is simply that one. It is true that there will be a continuity of regulations but it’s also true that we need to improve as much as we can.
CA: It’s always a challenge. It’s a competition, so you need to be better than the others, and to develop quicker, in particular if you are sitting behind, so that’s a challenge. Plus, you have also, even though there is not such big changes as this year in regulations, you still have a couple of changes. There will be the introduction of the Halo, some variation to the suspension regulation, which will make things slightly difficult. The sensitivity of car to weight will be much greater next year than this year so it’s going to be a different type of challenge, but still a challenge.
JA: I think I’d just say that while last year was more a blank sheet of paper and therefore you had more design choices to make, that was true for everybody. And we go, all of us teams, with a lot more information about how these cars behave and therefore with clearer ideas of what we would like to do for the next season. But that’s true for everybody and therefore everyone will be better guided and the overall level of difficulty in making sure that you’re the quickest will remain the same. The new challenge of refining your current weapon will be the same for everyone.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Cyril, returning to the Marcin Budkowski question, could you elaborate, just for the avoidance of any doubt, could you elaborate please on whether he resigned because you’d recruited him or whether you recruited him because he’d resigned from the governing body?
CA: I don’t want to enter into a… I don’t think we have any obligation to disclose that type of process that is an individual process. You may have encountered in your career some persons, so you know it’s always an opportunity that is coming from both ways. I think there was some feeling that Marcin wanted to do a career progression, moving also away from a pure technical role in which he is currently, for something which is a wider management responsibility, which is something we had on offer. So, it’s, as always, when demand and offer is meeting somewhere, and that has simply happened in the last couple of weeks and something that we have now made clear.
Q: (Jens Nagler – Bild) Question to Monsieur Abiteboul, the Budkowski deal, did you understand the discussion coming up about the deal or do you say ‘OK, everybody have the chance to make an approach to him’?
CA: I’m not totally sure of the question. If the question is whether we wanted to be extremely aggressive on notice period, on gardening leave provision, is that correct?
Can you understand that some of your competitors said it’s not correct?
CA: No. Well, first, it’s word that has been reported. I’m not sure that everyone is actually thinking that. Approaching people is unfortunately a part of Formula One, it’s also part of why Formula One is competitive and you have a level playing field and you have an interesting show and races. We always talk about the distortion created by disparity of resources – but you also need to have some freedom of people within the organisations such that the racing is interesting. That’s the first comment I would make. The second comment is yes, I understand – but again, when you recruit someone it is not a short-term opportunity. All the designs of next year’s car are already frozen. We are in the process of manufacturing moulds, suspension geometry, all of that is already decided since months. It is not something that is going to influence, and things will again start from scratch for 2019. These gentleman on my left and my right will know that there is limited influence someone like that can make to a car, and because of the obsolescence of information in Formula One, it’s not going to make a huge difference. We are taking that person because he has the skills, he has the experience of Formula One this is required for our programme and our project, which is to become a top team by 2020, full stop. It’s not for what he knows today.
Q: (Marco Mensurati – La Repubblica) To Mattia and James. I just would like to know what you think about that? What is your opinion? Are you fine with that or not?
JA: Erm… well… the relationship the teams have with the FIA is always… it relies on certain things. It relies on the teams being able to be candid with the FIA and have absolute confidence that anything that is discussed with the FIA remains completely confidential. Those things have always been true about the relationship we have with the FIA and always will be. The main foundations of our relationship, the teams’ relationship to the FIA, are built on that, and those things are strong, and always will be. If an FIA employee leaves and re-joins a team, then you would wish, I think, to have somewhat longer notice period than three months. I think everyone, on FIA side and teams’ side would say that but… this isn’t the situation today and I guess we’ll all just swallow and get on with it. But the actual building blocks of what makes the relationship between teams and FIA good is what I described – and that always has been strong, always will be strong.
MB: There is not much I can add. Certainly, it’s a delicate matter. Certainly, all the people involved in that situation feels uncomfortable, and I’m sure it will be discussed at a different level still.
Cyril has said that it’s a start date of April next year. Are you satisfied with that, James? Mattia?
JA: Well, it is whatever it contractually is. So, there’s not much point in talking about it.
Q: (Gaëtan Vigneron – RTBF) Question for James. You have worked with Fernando, with Sebastian, with Lewis. If you had to point out the big difference between them or who was the most impressive one for you?
JA: I get asked this question a lot and it’s a frustrating question because, first of all, there’s an impossibility of answering it because there’s only one way to know for sure and it’s to line them all up in exactly the same equipment on the same days and have a championship where you find out exactly. All I can tell you is that all three of them have got the victories and the achievements that they have, not by good fortune but by being brilliantly skilful racing drivers. I would add to that, that it has been a considerable pleasure joining Mercedes this year for many, many reasons but one of those was that it was my first opportunity to start working alongside Lewis. I think I’d only ever said hello to him once in all the years prior to that and the experience of working with him is very different to what I imagined it would be and I’ve found a racing driver or the sort of excellence that all of us can see from his statistics and the way he goes about his job but what has been particularly good is that I’ve found a guy that conducts himself as a man in a way that makes you happy to work alongside him. And that’s been an enjoyable and good thing about joining Mercedes.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Cyril, still on the question of recruitment but this time about Carlos Sainz. Could you try and elaborate on the reasons why you have chosen to recruit a driver in the knowledge that you’ll lose him after a year. Or certainly the indications in the statements indicate that you lose him after a single year. What sort of benefit is that to the team?
CA: First and foremost, we have to accept the fact we are, y’know, arriving a bit late to the part as Renault. We only entered back into Formula One as a manufacture team 18 months ago and we are arriving at a point where a lot of drivers are in the middle of their contracts. There are basically cycles for a number of contracts. You know that was something we had to acknowledge and take into account into our planning for drivers. It looks like there will be lots of things that will be up for renewal in the course of next year, for 2019. We sort-of feel that we should be part of those discussions next year and therefore having a driver for one year is a concession, in particular on a loan is a concession, but we feel it is an acceptable concession. It’s going to allow us to make a step forward, just like Nico Hülkenberg allowed us to do one step forward this year. It’s going to be another step forward for next year before many making maybe another step in 2019.