PART TWO: TEAM REPRESENTATIVES – Jonathan NEALE (McLaren), Gene HAAS (Haas), Franz TOST (Toro Rosso)
Q: Jonathan, can we start with you? P11 and P12 in free practice and Jenson Button, not having sat in a Formula One car for six months or something is three one hundredths of a second slower than Stoffel Vandoorne. Tell us about your day?
Jonathan NEALE: Yeah, it’s been a good day for us. We’ve run problem-free, which is nice. Everything that we brought in terms of changes to the car seem to be OK, from what I know, we’re still crunching some of the data. There’s certainly some more lap time to come. I think the drivers are some way off the limit at the moment. It was nice to see some confidence in Stoffel and rookie JB back in the car is good, yeah.
Q: So it’s the race of two worlds you’re calling it this weekend. It’s going pretty well so far for Fernando Alonso starting fifth on the grid for the Indianapolis 500. But here in Monaco the pressure is kind of on Jenson and Stoffel a bit after Sauber got those points in Spain. You don’t want to be sitting there in P10 with zero points for much longer, so you’ve got to turn this into some points haven’t you?
JN: That would always be the aim, but looking at a couple of points here or there, or whether it’s P10 of P9, yes, it’s a matter of fact but our issues are larger than that. We came off P6 at the end of last year, should have made a step forward and didn’t and that’s far and away the biggest issue, which is what we’re working on. Without being too discounting about it, we’re taking those issues much more seriously than that. But here, where anything can happen and with a car where perhaps some of the power unit plays less of a determining role, it’s exciting to see what we can do.
Q: So finally, what is the latest on Honda’s recovery strategy? When will see a significant step in performance and reliability from them?
JN: I think that’s something that’s better addressed by Honda actually. Let’s see what happens; let them talk about their plans.
Q: Gene, coming to you, your second Monaco Grand Prix as a Formula One team boss. How have you analysed the value of your presence in Formula One to your business, as obviously that’s why you came in? And what do you make of the new owners of Formula One and their push to get a second US Grand Prix and maybe even more than that?
Gene HAAS: Well, I think the new owners are doing everything correctly that I see. They’ve visited us several times in our hospitality suite, so they’re making an effort to find out what we think is important and ask our opinion. They seem to have lots of ideas. Some of them are becoming more evident, small ones, more access to video clips and things. I think all of that is very, very positive. As far as the relationship to my business, it’s given us an impact, a notoriety. It’s a premium product and we associate a premium machine tool with a premium product, so I think that’s good. It’s a long-term strategy. We are more here to learn than to race at the moment. As we go forward… it’s a process. I’m very happy where we are right now. I don’t really know what the future holds, but right now we’re content.
Q: Now a bit like Jonathan, you’re also racing in two worlds, you’re at Charlotte this weekend with your NASCAR team. There’s clearly a lot of focus on Indianapolis as well, so what do you think of Fernando Alonso’s performance so far on his first experience on an oval? You’re very experienced with ovals, so you’re probably best qualified to judge how impressive his performance has been so far.
GH: Well, I can’t speak in terms of what a race car driver would think about Indy, but I do know that it’s a very, very nerve-racking type of drive. You’re basically talking 230mph on the straightaways and you slow down to 225mph in the turns. Most Formula One driver don’t experience that, with very little grip. The way you set up the cars is you put a lot of grip in there and then they keep removing it until the driver just can’t stand it anymore, because he thinks he’s going to hit the wall. So it’s an incremental process very unlike what you would find in Formula One. That kind of racing I think is different. One driver once explained it as like driving on black ice. Trying to control a car that’s on the verge of spinning out all of the time is not easy to do. I think it’s great. I think everybody wants to see how a Formula One driver does in Indy, just as much as they would like to see NASCAR drivers in Formula One.
Q: Franz, P4 and P5 today in free practice, out on the track the car looks nice and supple. Are you feeling optimistic this weekend?
Franz TOST: Yeah, I think we have a very competitive package together. The car works well. We found a really good set-up here for Monaco. Both drivers like Monaco, they’re also experienced and I hope that we can repeat this performance on Saturday as well as on Sunday because this is what counts.
Q: Obviously it comes off the back of a double points finish in Spain but it looks like you could still do with a bit more horsepower; when do you expect some more from the Renault upgrade coming along?
FT: We will see. Renault is making some small steps. First of all, they have to get everything under control from the reliability side. We must not forget that Renault came up with a completely new design of an engine and this takes time. We all know that the power unit now is very very complicated and I’m convinced that within the second half of the season they will provide us with a very good, powerful engine. I must say that so far we are quite happy with the performance with Renault.
Q: So there’s no frustration there, because obviously you went from last year having an old spec engine that wasn’t going to develop and you’ve gone to something you thought was going to be… there’s no sense of frustration here, you can wait to the second half of the season can you?
FT: No, there’s no frustration. It always depends where you are coming from. Last year we had a one year-old engine and now we are even happy to have this year’s engine and as I just mentioned before, I’m convinced that Renault will do the steps forward which they promised.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Peter Farkas – Auto Motor) Jonathan, could you please share some details of how well Jenson has settled back into the rhythm and how different he found the car from last year’s car and what did he say after the first few laps?
JN: Great questions. So I think the… Jenson elected not to do the test after Bahrain because he was confident enough in the simulation tools. I think as well the car is still and was then developing quite quickly so whatever he got into and adjusted to was subsequently going to be different again by the time we got to Monaco. So he’s been in and… you know, Jenson’s been with us for some time now so we know the pattern, the rhythm and how he likes to set himself and the car up, so we’ve had several simulator sessions, seat fits, system checks, just sort of running through the basics. He’s a World Champion, so we don’t need to do that much so that feel and that competitiveness is still there. He’s a relaxed individual until you get him in the car, put somebody next to him who’s close in terms of speed and then the internal competition starts and that’s fun for the garage as well as for the fans. In terms of from last year to this year, of course the cars are wider but everybody apart from one this morning was off the barriers. I think that there’s still quite a bit to come from both drivers and from the car but there’s so much more downforce this year compared to last year so the brake points are all completely different. But as he said before he came in, he’s having fun and as he said it’s fun to be in the car. He was going to be with us but it’s a lot more fun driving than just sitting on the side.
Q: (Dan Knutson – Auto Action and Speedsport) Gene, towards the end of last season, you jokingly said that if you had known how difficult F1 was you might not have entered. The team knows the ropes a lot better now, but is it a case of actually being more difficult because the more you know, the more you realise what a challenge it is?
GH: Yes, I really didn’t know the depth of the technical challenges in Formula One and probably like most of the fans, they really don’t know how complex these cars are but it’s intriguing, it’s fun to get involved in it. We have great partners and I think we’re doing OK. We were a little bit lucky last year and now our luck has got more normal, it’s more normal luck that you typically have in racing so it’s a challenge. It’s very hard competing against some of these… all these teams, they’re all very good at what they do. We’re weak in areas like tyre strategy and we’re a little weak in our pit areas. We get caught behind cars that cost us positions. All these ten little things that all add up to a tenth of a second. That’s really where we lose a lot of time and I think that as we develop, we get better at that.
Q: (Silvia Arias – Parabrisas) For Mr Jonathan Neale: is there any possibility that we’re going to see Jenson next year if Fernando retires at the end of the year?
JN: I think that’s really a question for Jenson. I think in the recent media, Jenson’s been saying that this is a one-off. It’s a question for Jenson. In terms of speculating about what he feels at the end of the season, or what might happen to Fernando, maybe it’s just that, it’s speculation.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) There have been suggestions from Liberty that they’re going to move away from a fixed-term contract, Concorde-type agreement into an open-ended partnership or constitution, possibly even with equitable revenue distribution. How do you feel about this and how will this impact on your teams?
FT: If we get more money I’m more than fine.
GH: I understand that the new owners are typically going to do what new owners do: go out and raise revenue and cut costs and that’s exactly what they’ll do and since we’re on the cost side of it, it’s a little nerve-wracking what they have in mind. On the other hand, F1 is kind of a crown jewel so maybe they’ll tread lightly and everything will work itself out.
JN: Yeah, I think it’s a question of… if you look back over 15 or 20 years then Formula One as an investment, as an entity, has done very well for itself, but what got us here won’t get us there. The world is changing, the business is changing, the nature of partnerships, commerciality is changing and I think for some time a number of us, yourself included Dieter, have looked at the grid: well how many sustainable business models are there, in terms of the teams’ structure, forget the FOM side of things, just the teams structure? We know that there have been pressures in that sustainability. To your point about whether some read baseline of the cost structure or the income line grows as has been said by my colleagues here, then I think it’s a question of looking at the package as a whole and I think that’s what the new owners are doing which I think is really exciting. I think they’ve got the right people – by the looks of it – around the table but if Formula One does what Formula One has historically done, which is: see the big picture and then take a very narrow fix and do a one thing and then wonder why the consequences over here were not what was expected, then I think it will be extremely difficult and very challenging but it looks to me like the whole thing has been thought out and we’ll see what gets put to us. But we’re open-minded and I think generally supportive of the way that the Liberty guys and the new owners are going because we recognise that what has been has had its time I think.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Gene, that comment of yours that what they have in mind is nerve-wracking – sorry, could you expand on that please, it’s rather an intriguing comment you made?
GH: You know most savvy businessmen in the US are public companies and it’s bottom line, let’s face it, it is very much to it but since we’re the newcomers in this business, our revenue stream from Formula One is nothing so anything we get will be greatly appreciated but I think we just have to be very very careful in how you redistribute the wealth because there are some teams at the top that have spent fifty years doing this, that have earned some entitlement to how the costs are distributed. I’m not saying that the teams at the bottom don’t deserve more but I’m still saying teams at the top deserve more. You can’t just arbitrarily redistribute that because quite frankly winning races should come with rewards and it should not be a socialistic type structure. Other than that, everything else is open to negotiation but I think in racing, even in NASCAR we’re having struggles with that. The team owners are typically on the bottom rung of the income stream and they’re struggling – as viewership goes down, sponsors go down. It’s been very very difficult in NASCAR and I think to some degree that teams that rely on sponsorship are starting to find it’s very very difficult to attract a major sponsor. A $25m sponsor is a huge sponsor. Today, that is practically non-existent. Most of the sponsors – at least I know from NASCAR, they’re more in the $5m to $10m range and you have to have multiple sponsors on your cars at different races. There’s some adaptability to that but at the same time there’s a lot of demand from media, so how that money gets redistributed seems to be the question but unfortunately the teams don’t have a real strong position there to speak up about how it will get distributed because we don’t own Formula One.
Q: (Peter Farkas – Auto Motor) Sorry, this is more of a technical question maybe but are this year’s tyres even more tricky to manage than last year’s, because they were supposed to be a bit easier to manage but there are lots of complaints, from team to team, that they are very hard to get into the temperature window? Is it just a new challenge and it’s alright or it’s a bit like playing roulette, it’s too arbitrary?
JN: I don’t think it’s… it’s easy to get it wrong but I don’t think it’s the tyre issue. We don’t find it particularly challenging. Sometimes when we’ve brought a harder compound – I mean the medium compound in Barcelona, on the nature of that tarmac was a bit trickier to get to work but I don’t think the tyres are a big or detrimental story to Formula One this year. I think the racing’s been good, I think the general direction of the technical regulations in introducing more downforce was the right thing to do and closing up the gap on the power unit manufacturers… I think that’s been the… it’s still the dominant stories. I don’t think tyres are an issue for us.
FT: The tyres are a challenge, to understand them, how they work, but it’s good for the engineers as well as for the drivers to find out in which window they can get their earliest peak and they can get the most out of it. But in motor sports they have to understand the tyre because it’s a performance differentiator and therefore I can only say positive (things) about Pirelli because in my opinion they do a good job and today I saw the same for all the teams and we have to find the best possible solution and get the most out of it. And there are always complaints; either they are too soft or they are too hard or this or that. Forget it, they should sit in the car and should push. That’s it.
GH: Well, in Barcelona, when the safety car came out, we came in and we went on the medium tyres which were about a second slower than the softs and we stayed way too long on the medium tyres and we feel that cost us a chance at some points. We had done some degradation testing in the pre-practices but we didn’t get enough time on them, we only got like five or ten laps but if we had a better tyre strategy we would have stayed out on the mediums a very short time. The tyres do have a lot of differences between the different ones that are available and you have to know how to gauge that in order to make time. As much as the tyres are very good, tyre strategy is key.