Martin Whitmarsh: 'I expect Lewis to be with us next year. he loves this team'

The Brian Viner interview: In a tough season for McLaren on and off the track, the team principal remains positive – particularly about the future of his former world champion

In the unlikely event of a James Bond villain building his lair near Woking, it might look a great deal like the McLaren Technology Centre, a spectacular, curved, glass-walled building designed by Norman Foster and overlooking a handsome artificial lake. Which is not to equate McLaren with SPECTRE, or Ron Dennis with Ernst Blofeld, and yet the place practically vibrates with the ambition to rule the world, if only on the motor-racing track.

Had Martin Whitmarsh had his way, however, McLaren's newish headquarters would have been a more modest affair. The McLaren team principal is pleased now to work in a Foster masterpiece, in fact he later shows me around, bursting with proprietorial pride at what has risen on the site of an ostrich farm, but at the time he considered it folly to spend so much (an estimated £300m, which possibly errs on the conservative side).

It was far from the only time he and Dennis, his predecessor as team principal and now executive chairman, have clashed. They are intensely and enduringly competitive with each other, even in the business of getting to circuits first from the hotel. And Whitmarsh's eruptions during their differences of opinion, he tells me, have been such that, "the hinges of Ron's office door for quite a few years needed maintenance".

It is hard to believe that this tall, urbane and engagingly amiable man could be capable of the door-slamming flounce. But then passions run high in Formula One, and this season nowhere higher than at McLaren, whose driver Lewis Hamilton has wafted clouds of controversy behind him like the smell of too much aftershave.

Hamilton's latest faux pas, following the European Grand Prix, was to imply that the championship was already a done deal for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, and that his car was not good enough to win this weekend's British Grand Prix. Last Monday he did some hard reversing, via Twitter, having also back-tracked after his "maybe it's because I'm black" comment at Monaco a month ago. Meanwhile, illustrious former drivers seem to be queuing up to criticise Hamilton's aggressive racing, which has resulted in several collisions already this season. And amid all this, there was his private chat, in a decidedly public arena, with the Red Bull boss Christian Horner. All of which leaves Whitmarsh looking a bit like a benign headmaster, a little cross with his talented but unruly sixth-former, yet defensive of the boy's behaviour.

"A racing driver has to attack," he says of the widespread lambasting of Hamilton's driving style. "If you are going to overtake another Formula One car, you are going to take a risk." Which is all very well, yet Hamilton's critics include some celebrated risk-takers, among them Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and Sir Stirling Moss. Are they all mistaken?

Whitmarsh smiles. "These are very quotable people, and very quotable people say things for effect," he says. "I know Niki and like him, and I accept that there are people around who want to say things to create controversy. Niki's in that category. You know, there was a famous encounter between Jackie Stewart and Ayrton Senna, which I think is in the new Senna movie, and it's basically them having the same conversation. Ayrton's response was that he was there to race. Now, does Lewis regret his accidents? Of course he does and so do I. Would you want him to change his style? With due respect to the great and the good, we're living in the here and now."

The here and now, unfortunately for Whitmarsh, also embraces a 77-point gulf in the drivers' championship between Vettel and McLaren's other driver, second-placed Jenson Button, with Hamilton 12 points further adrift. Lippy Lewis might be back on-message, but it doesn't take Nostradamus to predict another title for Vettel, and more jibes that McLaren have, again, failed to produce a sufficiently competitive car.

"Adrian [Newey, the designer] at Red Bull, has done a great job," he concedes. "I accept that our car's not good enough. It has improved a lot, and needs to improve more, and we didn't win, but we did compete. There are 12 teams in Formula One, maybe 10 of which are very good teams, run by good people. It is, and should be, very difficult to win a race. Toyota, Honda, BMW, have all spent billions trying to win and haven't succeeded. Also, if people like me came out of every weekend saying it all went to plan, the sport would be dead. We need weekends when team principals such as myself are frustrated or disappointed."

But there are team principals, and there is the McLaren team principal, heading a team that since 1967 has won one in every four Grands Prix. It is a statistic of which Whitmarsh, 53 years old and only the fourth team principal in all that time, is proudly but also painfully aware. "Of all the teams," he says, "Ferrari and McLaren are not going to be forgiven if they're not winning. There's a higher level of expectation. I don't recall anyone giving Red Bull a tough time before they were winning."

And so back to Hamilton, and that 15-minute tete-a-tete with Horner, in Canada. Firstly, if Whitmarsh were a betting man, which of course highly-trained engineers rarely are, would he back Hamilton to be driving for McLaren this time next year?

A fleeting but discernible pause. "Yeah, I would. Lewis loves this team and he knows the car is capable of winning races. He's sat with me here in the last 10 days and explained his passion, enthusiasm and desire to remain part of this team. I've known him since he was 11. I don't think he would look me in the eye and say that if he didn't mean it."

What, though, the paddock gossips still want to know, did Lewis say while looking Horner in the eye? Whitmarsh sighs. "Formula One is a circus. I probably went to see half the teams in Canada, and three other drivers came to see me. We didn't talk about job opportunities. Ultimately, we're in the entertainment business. I can get agitated about things written about us, but it's the business we're in. I have to accept that the sport needs a little bit of controversy."

But wouldn't he rather it wasn't his man radiating it? "Well, I'm a lot more relaxed about the headlines that came out of Canada than those that came out of Monaco. I care very much about image-damaging stuff to one of our young drivers."

Criticising the stewards, adds Whitmarsh, was as pointless as criticising the referee after a football match. "I think you have to accept the punishment. I'm not overtly critical of how Lewis conducts himself in the car. But that [the "maybe it's because I'm black" comment] was poor humour in the heat of the moment. There's a fair amount of adrenalin and frustration racing through you after a race, and after the fifth microphone has been stuck in your face you start to get bored with your own answers. Lewis wasn't seriously trying to claim that the stewards were racist, but what he said wasn't acceptable, which he acknowledged, by apologising personally and writing a letter of apology to [FIA president] Jean Todt. A few days later I had lunch with him, and before I said anything he'd explained his embarrassment. He is an intelligent young man, sincere, and underneath, still a humble guy."

Nonetheless, it has been ventured that in the contrasting personalities of Hamilton and Button, McLaren have another Senna and Alain Prost. "Superficially, perhaps," says Whitmarsh. "But not really. The team win photograph after the Canadian Grand Prix had Jenson and Lewis [whose cars had collided, with the former taking the blame, although as a spectacular winner he could afford to be magnanimous] with their arms around each other. I don't remember too many pictures of Ayrton and Alain cuddling."

The sport could do with a bit more brotherly love, in Whitmarsh's opinion, and as chairman since last year of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) he has tried to foster it. "Last season we actually had a season which primarily concentrated on brave young men driving the most advanced racing vehicles in the world, and trying with the most skill, to win a world championship. That was terrific. I like Formula One to be held up as virtuous in terms of its governance, and I delight in the tribulations of [football's governing body] FIFA, because I consider them our competitors."

Virtuosity, it has to be said, is not a word often used in connection with the governance of Formula One. This might even be the first time. But there can be no doubt that the FOTA chairman has his virtues. And self-awareness is one of them.

"Over the last 20 years we have done a pretty bad job of managing the development of this sport," he says. "Yet we are still here today, so the fundamental product must be very good. But it would be foohardly to be complacent. I don't believe we have achieved our potential as a sport, and to do so we need to demonstrate common interests. Three years ago the teams were seen as a warring rabble. McLaren and Ferrari in particular have spent 30 years fighting on every front possible. But the teams are increasingly offering a stable collective voice. And that's right. We need to listen to the fans, we need to control costs, clean up transparency, and there's no point saying 'it's the responsibility of the commercial rights holder, we're just the teams'."

Indeed. But let me ask the question; is Bernie Ecclestone complicit in this 20-year-record of "pretty bad" management ? "I'm not going to pick out Bernie, it's better I criticise myself. We are the third-largest sporting spectacle in the world. We should be number one."

Another of his concerns, both as McLaren man and FOTA chairman, is safety. "People think of the drivers as too young and too rich but actually they're extraordinary human beings, and when they leave the pit lane we assume they're coming back in one piece, but it's not a given." That being the case, doesn't he consider it a personal affront when one of his own drivers is accused of endangering the lives and limbs of others? "No, because I don't share the view. If I did, I would do something about it. You can't be too thin-skinned in this business."

It was Hamilton's inaugural win in Montreal four years ago, he adds, that provided him with one of the most satisfying moments of his career. "But even more satisfying, if I walk with you down to engineering, is seeing 170 engineers, all with intellects far beyond mine, and knowing I had a hand in recruiting them as bright but nervous young graduates."

We duly take the walk, which also takes in the assembly line of the new McLaren road car, the £168,000 MP4-12C, and the museum, where Prost's car from the fiercely controversial 1989 Japanese Grand Prix is displayed alongside Senna's from the following year's equally momentous race. It is a hi-tech memory lane. which, arguably, and perhaps usefully, shows that, in the seething controversy stakes, young Lewis Hamilton is really little more than a novice.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam