Gil de Ferran: "Fernando Alonso will be successful in anything he does"
As spoke in Singapore to the sporting director of McLaren Gil de Ferran about the Spanish driver's exit from F1, the current situation of his team and its future.
- Can I admit it was a surprise to see you in this role…
- When I first came in one of my responsibilities was primarily to help Stoffel (Vandoorne) a little bit in whatever I could, but I was also tasked by Zak (Brown) with having a real look to see how the team was operating. And you know… was I prepared for that? (laughs) You know, you’re never 100% prepared. So I’ll answer that question in a general way, when I step back and I think about 15 years ago when I retired from driving, I came to work in F1, well first I worked in the media, then I came to work in F1, for about two and a half years, then I ran my own team and gained a lot of experience that way and also in businesses outside F1, outside of motor sports I should say. I spend a lot of time doing consulting for Honda in America, so I guess compared to 12 years ago or whatever I’m a bit older, a bit wiser (laughs), more experienced in all aspects of management and certainly I told Zak from the beginning that if I feel I’m not adding value I’ll be the first one to tell you. But quite honestly I didn’t feel that way - I felt quite at home. Obviously F1 has changed a lot in the last 12 years, but in a way it’s all about the people. And in that way I didn’t feel out of my depth.
- You have a fresh approach, a new vision... was it difficult to identify the problems?
- I’m not so sure… when you say problem it sounds like something tremendously wrong and at the end of the day I have to say, when I came into the team, you’ve probably heard me say that before, one thing that was obvious was that it was a team that had a lot of talent… everywhere: in the engineering group, back at the factory, the mechanics, the shop floor… really a lot of good people around, a lot of loyal people, a lot of talent. So for me it’s more of a question of how you galvanise that talent and how do you extract more out of that talent to get people to work together.
- How are you going about improving things?
- It’s about improving communications, improving clarity in the organisation, trying to make the group a little more cohesive and I think we’re moving in that direction. We have a plan and we’re slowly moving in that direction. It will take time; it’s a road that we need to walk, that we need to walk together as a team. You can’t stop the clock and say “People, we need to take break”. I always say, each and every weekend, we have to do the best we can, and people are trying to run a good race and so on and so forth, but we have one eye here and one eye on the long term. Trying to make sure we can show up next year and be a little more competitive.
- Can you get McLaren back to the top?
- Listen, I’ll tell you, someone asked me a similar question the other day and I said the only thing I can promise is a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication and passion. I never promise results I can only promise work. I’m fully engaged with the task and obviously it’s a huge honour and responsibility to be sitting here talking to you, wearing this shirt. I’m very energised and I’m going to work hard. That’s all I can promise.
- We need to talk about Fernando Alonso. What’s your opinion of the Spanish driver?
- My opinion of Fernando Alonso… you probably heard me say before that for me he’s probably one of the best drivers in the history of the sport, and not just F1 - he’s simply an outstanding driver. I say that because to be a good driver you need to do a lot of things very well. It’s not enough just being fast. It’s interesting when a young driver comes to me and he says, “I’m fast” and I say, well you’ve only got one item, there’s a hundred more that you need to be good at. And Fernando scores very highly in everything, he’s super clear with the engineers, he works very well with the engineers and the team. He’s very, very adaptable, he can deal with a range of different situations incredibly well. You put him in any situation and he’s immediately able to extract the maximum, he’s a great racer… there are so many qualities to him. Frankly I couldn’t be more impressed.
- But… he’s retiring from F1. It seems his future is in the USA, in IndyCar, but even Nascar want him…
- Stopping F1, retirement, whatever you want to call it, I had to go through that myself. I was a similar age, a little bit younger and it’s very difficult. Because you’ve had a focus ever since you were a kid, there’s a big reason to get out of bed and that’s to be as good a driver as you can be. And it’s a very personal thing to decide to try something different or do something else and everybody is different in the way they are motivated. The fire we each have within comes from a different source. What may be motivating for you may not be for me and vice versa… so it’s very difficult to comment on what is the best thing to do. I heard that many times when drivers retired, “Oh he shouldn’t have done this, he should have done that”. I think it’s unfair to comment, because it’s a very personal thing. And I think Fernando is still an unbelievable driver, he’s lost none of his qualities, in fact probably the opposite, he’s probably still getting better. He needs to search his soul and decide what is next for him.
- But there’s no doubt it’s not easy to leave F1 for the US at 37…
- It seems to me that Fernando loves a challenge; I could see that when we were working together in the Indy 500 last year, where he was completely committed to do a good job. Working as hard or harder than anyone in the car, and outside of the car, working through every single detail that he thought was going to make his race a better race… and he had a fantastic race. So I think that whatever he decides to do he will do very well. I can’t imagine that man of his professionalism and his talent… he’ll be competitive in whatever he decides to do. He just has to search his heart and decide.
- In any case though, for one of the best drivers in F1 to leave the sport is incredible, it wouldn’t happen in any other sport…
- Well, you go through phases. Like I said it’s a very personal thing.
- Maybe F1 is a special kind of sport…
- Well you see it in other sports. Being a sportsman is a very unique thing in many ways. To be a good sportsman, not just a good driver, you have to have a certain mindset and things change and I respect Fernando’s decision. We’re working hard to keep him in the family, he’s been a great ambassador for McLaren and he’ll be sorely missed and above all he’s a lot of fun [laughs]
- A lot of fun? That’s not what a lot of people think about him?
- He is, he’s fun, you know that. (Laughs)
- If he decides to do a full season of IndyCar would you be willing to coach him again?
- We have a very open channel of communications. Of course I’ll do my very best to try to help him. But frankly he doesn’t need much help. Even last year, all I did, the way I looked at it, I was never going to teach him how to drive a car, all I did was try to help him pay attention to things “This is a little different to what you are used to, pay attention to that”. And obviously he picked it up straight away.
- When did you meet Fernando for the first time?
- I met Fernando just to say hello back in 2005 and 2006 when he was winning his World Championships, but I never met him properly to be honest. We had a lot of common acquaintances and friends and I started talking to him seriously the first time in the preparation for the Indy 500.
- And you became his coach…
- I guess it was a decision Fernando and Zak took together. What happened was, when they announced it… I mean I’d known Zak for many years and I said congratulations and that this is great for motorsports, because I still believe that. I said, it’s a great story and it’s great for racing and is there anything I can do to help… and the next thing you know we’re on the phone and it’s like “ok, you want to help”. For me it was a great honour and a huge opportunity, not only to work with a talent like Fernando but also to work closely with McLaren.
- Can Fernando win the Indy easily or not?
- Nobody can win the Indy easily (laughs). Because Indianapolis is a very long event. It’s a unique event.
- And the IndyCar championship?
- Nobody can easily win a championship. But for sure, he has all the ingredients to be fighting for the championship in Indy Car.
- Do you think that what he wants is a competitive year and to come back in 2020?
- I think that's too much speculation at this point. Right now we’re focused on Sunday and rebuilding the team and delivering a good car next year.
- Can you see Fernando back in F1 though?
- I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him. These things are super personal. I can’t speak for him.
- Looking to next year, was it Fernando who advised you or the team to sign Carlos?
- No it wasn’t Fernando, no. We had an opportunity to sign Carlos when he became available and when we looked at his track record and how well he performed compared to a lot of his teammates we thought: “Here’s a guy who is very young, he’s still developing, next year will be his fifth year in F1”. So we thought it would be a good opportunity. He’s an intelligent man. So we thought it was a great opportunity.
- As you say, Carlos is very young, Lando Norris is even younger… it’s an interesting plan for a team like McLaren, it’s never been tried before.
Well look, I think we’re taking a long term view on this. Particularly when you look at Lando, he’s a supreme talent. He’s been very successful at every stage of his career all the way from, I think I’m correct, the youngest champion in karting all the way through to now. Every time he gets in the car he adapts himself very, very quickly. It’s very, very impressive. He’s very, very young, but he’s shown a lot of maturity behind the wheel. Not only when he’s been driving our cars, but in his Formula 2 season. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, but I think he’s raced with a lot of maturity and a lot of good decision making. So we’re taking a long term view on the whole thing. We think we have two great guys behind the wheel and we just need to work together. Obviously when you change two drivers it’s a challenging situation and we have to learn about each other and that always takes a lot of time. I think we’re confident that we made a good decision.
- Do you think Carlos could be a potential future world champion?
I think that’s the reason both of our guys are in the car. If we didn’t believe that, then they wouldn’t be driving for us. Like I said, I think Carlos is already doing well and he’s still very young, so he needs to keep developing, so we look forward to having him in the team and working together. We need them to be a part of the team so we can go on this journey together of rebuilding McLaren.
- The fact that Carlos has four years of experience, did that make it easier to go for Lando?
- To be honest we didn’t think in those terms… it was definitely a positive when we made the decision to go for Carlos, that he had some experience already, but we looked at it in a completely isolated way. What is his potential and so on and so forth. There’s no pressure on him, we just need to work together.
- Strange things happen in this sport some times. Fernando said it’s interesting how Leclerc went to Ferrari while Stoffel Vandoorne is out despite both being record drivers in F2…
-Look, these decisions are very complex and it’s a judgement call at the end of the day. Stoffel is a great driver. He’s been a great ambassador for McLaren as well and he’s very well liked in the team. And it was a difficult decision. And I think that Stoffel and ourselves are focused on trying to do the best we can on these last few races. That’s the best thing for him and for us, we know he can be competitive. But this year obviously we produced a very difficult car, which hasn’t helped his cause, but we need to keep working together and see if we can be more competitive and score more points. For me it was particularly difficult because I really like Stoffel, not only as a driver but also as a person. I think he’s a great human being so it was a particularly difficult decision.
- Good luck with the team Gil, do you truly believe that things are getting better?
- From where I’m sitting I think things are really good. I think we’d like to be doing a bit better each and every weekend but I think the atmosphere in the team is really good. Many thanks.
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