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

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:16

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.

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