The 2017 F1 season gets underway in Australia on 26 March, and so far the McLaren Honda's new car has been giving the team a whole host of headaches in testing. We caught up with Eric Boullier, racing director of McLaren, to find out what's going wrong and if the car will be competitive this season...
You look unsettled Mr Boullier, it seems like you're spending all day giving explanations, as well as asking for them. So before we start, how are you?
(He yawns and tries to smile and sighs...) Good, good, well, in truth, tired, very tired.
Did you ever think the start of the season could be this tough?
No. The truth is we're having more problems than we expected, we knew we'd encounter some things, but truly not as many as we're seeing. We're always working to reduce the amount of problems and be able to go faster.
What's the solution?
The only solution is to keep working hard, to get back to competing with the new concept, which has some issues, the problem is the timing. We should be fixing these in January not in March. We've put in a lot over the last two years to fix things, to get back to being at the front. We've got to make a big engineering effort to get there. We need to keep working hard.
Is it just Honda's fault?
No, no, no. It's our problem too, but they are problems we weren't able to fix before and we're finding out about them in testing. Some are the engine and we should have fixed them before, but then the chassis is too heavy to run at that point...basically we need to work and not be emotional, just be rational to get better.
Do you think the car will end up being more competitive than last year?
I couldn't tell you yet, it's complicated to know right now.
Over and above the engine, what's the feeling?
We have set ourself some very ambitious targets... improve the chassis, downforce, the suspension, whatever we can... I think the car is a good platform and, we're going to bring in more parts over the next few weeks, especially for Australia. So I think the car, the chassis is a good platform. I don't know if the engine will be able to compete with Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault, but if it is and we get a good final package, we'll be competitive.
Before testing it was said you had a chance of being on the podium, but now some are even doubting if you're going to finish races...
I don't know, it's what I told you, if we've got a good engine we'll be competitive, if not, we won't be. It's that simple.
Can the McLaren finish the race in Australia?
Ohhhh, (laughs) I hope so, but I don't know.
A question about Fernando Alonso. Do you think he'll stay with the team if the results aren't good?
There are always a lot of stories about this. I think Fernando is being honest with us, just as we're being honest with him. He first wanted to see how the new car was. And how the new regulations are. And I think he likes the new F1. And he wants to be competitive because he has talent to show the world and to himself. And we need to be competitive to keep him happy. If we're competitive he'll be happy and if not he'll take his own decisions...
For next year...
It's the same, the same situation. Have you spoken to him about next year? Yes, but it's still early days. But of course we've spoken.
"If we're competitive, Alonso will be happy and won't need to take decisions"
You always say Fernando is the best driver. Why? Are there objective data?
I don't want to give you too much information, because I know a lot of teams want that information, but he's the best. Without a doubt. He's the best because he is, clearly, but over and above that, it can be shown.
Yes, but he's not won a title in 11 years, and everyone says he's the best driver... it's hard to understand.
Well, in truth it's very easy [to understand]. The team is fundamental in F1, being there at the right time, in the right team at a given moment, with the right engine. But you know, you know he's the best and everything that's happened... maybe you know it better than I do...
You've always said yes to this question, but right now, do you believe Alonso will be Champion again?
I'm not sure.
Talking of trying, what do you think of Mercedes' attempt to sign Fernando?
First of all, he's got a contract with us. Second, he wants to win with us.
"Alonso is the best, you can prove it"
Do you think it's normal for Toto Wolff to talk to Alonso?
Next question... of course, of course, normal.
How often have you wondered where McLaren would be with a Mercedes engine?
Let's just say a few times...
Do you think you'd be winning races if you had a Mercedes engine right now?
I think we would.
Yes, we'd be winning again.
Which team are favourites this year?
I don't know yet.
It looks like Ferrari are taking people by surprise.
Ferrari is definitely better than expected.
Some people think that Fernando leaving Ferrari was an error...
No. He was happy there. He was competitive and did what he had to do. But he wanted new challenges, because Fernando is a competitive person, a born competitor. He was there and he gave them everything, maybe his best drive was at Ferrari, but maybe he wanted something more. He needed new challenges. He's the best driver and he needs to win, he thought he would be able to here, and that has to be our job, to do that.
As for you, how do you explain the fact that at Lotus Renault you were achieving podium places and in a team as strong as McLaren you're going through such a difficult time. Do you miss those times?
I had a good time at Lotus. The four years at Lotus were very special, an unforgettable experience but now things are different, it's a different team where I'm having a good time. I'm in a different team, which is below where it should be in terms of results, but I still like McLaren so much. I love McLaren. We need to solve a few issues but going back to your question, I'd tell you we've got a bigger number of fans, we've got a great history, we're a legendary team, and we know what our goals are, to beat Mercedes we need a better chassis, better engine, better everything, so that's what we need to do. We need to make a better chassis and Honda a better engine and then we'll win every race this year. That's what we want to do and we'll fight to do it.
A question... do you miss Ron Dennis?
Maybe in terms of reacting to this situation...
I don't know how to answer that... (laughs)
Last question. Do you still believe in McLaren Honda?
Of course. Yes.
Good luck Eric. And thanks.
De nada. ('Don't mention it')
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