On the second day of the second test in Barcelona, Sarah Merritt was able sit down with Eric Boullier and review their chat from this time last year, as well as touch on some new topics such as the refreshed McLaren livery, new arrivals in the form of Zak Brown at the team and Liberty to the sport, the step-up of Stoffel Vandoorne to the full-time driver role, and the challenges at testing and for the season ahead.
Sarah Merritt: So, Eric, we met this time last year and talked through your career, and expectations and predictions for the year ahead – so much has happened since then! Big changes in social media and fan engagement, Stoffel now in a role as a driver, changes at the team with senior personnel, changes in the car name and colour, changes in F1 with the arrival of Liberty.
Eric Boullier: Everything has changed!
SM: Exactly. So let’s do a quick recap and talk around those things. Firstly, can you sum up last season for me? Was the word to use “progress”?
EB: I’m a racer, so I’ve spent all my life racing, and all my life winning races and championships in any category that I’ve been in, more or less. For me, not being in a position to see all of the hard work you put in behind the scenes being rewarded by track results is just a huge pain and a huge frustration.
Last year, whatever people can say, it’s another year that I’m going to put in the “one to forget” because it was nothing exciting. Having said that, I think we need to be honest with the fans and everybody, and yes, we made some progress; we had a couple of fifth places, but that’s not why I’m racing, and that’s not what McLaren are racing for.
SM: But better than the year before (2015)?
EB: Yes, of course, there is always worse! But that is not why we are here.
SM: This year, ahead of the season, I really got the sense of a fresh start at McLaren. Tell me, what it is like working with Zak – is it the culture change that it appears to be to us from the outside?
EB: Yes, it is. It’s a bit wider than this. Zak is somebody very positive, very energetic and in some ways, fresh. It is not only the fact that he is new, it’s also the fact that he is this character, and he’s very invigorating. That’s exactly what we needed, in terms of having an invigorating leader, and his vision as well for business is a bit different.
He has been very, very successful as well at bringing sponsors for us in the past, and also for the other teams, and to F1 itself. He’s got global connections, and I think that’s somebody we needed in the team – we definitely didn’t want him to work for somebody else against us!
SM: Onto the livery of the MCL32. The launch was exciting, the way it was executed and the way it was televised, and the naming of the car – all exciting changes that the fans really seem to have got behind. What are your thoughts on this? Are you happy with the nod to heritage with the orange, because I remember you saying last year you like the car being dark as the sponsor names show up!
EB: (Smiling) Everybody has their own opinion on this. I like the colour of your t-shirt – for the readers, she’s in orange. I like the colour. If you like the design or not, that is another question, that I know is being debated on social media. Everybody has their own opinion, and I’ve got my own one which I keep for me, but I like the colour change, I think it is welcome.
SM: And will there be some extra sponsor names on the car this year to fill some of the gaps?
EB: Yes, but I think it’s more about performing first, then there will be a lot of filled gaps.
SM: The arrival of Liberty to the sport, and the changes with F1 in general – do you think this is a good thing?
EB: I don’t know yet. We will see. I would say that some changes are positive, but we still have to meet with them, and understand where they want to bring Formula 1 to.
I would say on paper, based on who they are, what they are doing, and what their expertise is, they are perhaps a good owner to have because they will develop the product, not only to, let’s say, get the cash out of it, but they will develop the product, and develop the value of the product. They know fan engagement, and sponsor engagement, which will be crucial. I think anything they’ve said already, like doing 21 Super Bowls, is good.
If I look at my own experience, and look at a race like Le Mans, the show around the race is unbelievable. People come in for a week, which we can’t do 21 times a year, but I think that rather than going to a compressed format of 2 days, we should actually do the inverse, and bring it to 4 days, with concerts, and red carpet events with celebrities. We can do a Cannes Festival every weekend…look at last year in Austin with Taylor Swift, which was brilliant!
SM: Did you go?
EB: No, I was too busy, but it’s good for the fans, it’s not done for the teams. And it’s good, because then you create an event itself, and we are lucky enough to do 21 of these events in different countries all over the world, so tailor make it to the country we are in, with their own celebrities and their own stars. I think it’s great if we can do that, because people will then have value for money, and that’s going to make the promoters happy.
Then it is up to us to also make sure that the show on track is better, and access to drivers is better, as we all know the drivers are the main assets of Formula 1 – the stars of the show. I think what I hear so far is positive, but then how they will do it and when they will do it, I don’t know.
SM: The tests – I think it is fair to say that things haven’t gone as well as you and the team might have liked. We all know that “testing is testing”, but could you summarise the problems to me, if you are able to?
EB: Not much. Most of them are PU related, so you need to ask Honda, and I’m respectful of their position of things that they are happy to share, and things that they don’t want to share.
At the same time, we also have our own issues – we don’t run now because of us, not Honda – so this is why we are testing, to discover these kind of breaches. You put miles on the car just to discover these, fatigue problems, whatever. Everything has been simulated, and everything has been tested on the rigs, but you never know.
So to answer your question, so far, I’m not very happy and impressed because we have too many problems this week stopping our runs, but stopping us from running even properly, because before you target some performance runs in testing, you have a lot to go through. We are still in this phase, so we haven’t even tried a performance run or anything.
SM: From what I understand, the problems that you are having this week in the second week of testing are still the same that you had last week, as you are still running that spec of engine?
SM: And none of these are 2017 regulation related? They aren’t anything to do with the reg changes this year, but rather the engine redesign?
SM: After making positive progress last year, does something like this put a strain on the McLaren relationship with Honda? (I notice they’ve parted company with their consultant, Gilles Simon.) My analogy would be that maybe, comparing it to a marriage, you’re still together, but Honda are sleeping in the spare bedroom at the moment?
EB: (Laughing) No, still same bedroom at the moment! Same bed. I think you have to be careful to not mix all the stories. Gilles Simon I think is another story which has nothing to do with McLaren.
SM: That’s good to hear, because I think maybe people reading those things will connect them.
EB: Yes, that’s why I’m saying this. There’s no connection at all. But maximum strain? Yes, of course. We are here to compete in Formula 1, we are not here to run a gentle charity car show. We have to make things happen, and this is normal – like any partnership, we want the best from any partner. They put pressure on us, we put pressure on them, and that’s a fair game.
SM: Can you make efforts to make up time missed this week, and get your testing plan back to where you want it to be?
EB: No. With only 8 days of testing, I promise you, the test plan is really full, and really tight. Obviously, any time you don’t run, especially more than half a day, you can never recover. It doesn’t mean we won’t be competitive or that we won’t be able to compete, but the risk of issues is higher, and the risk of not being able to set-up the car 100% is higher. I’m not saying we’re not going to achieve it, but that is the risk, because you have to prioritise things.
SM: So when you go to Melbourne, the Friday practice is probably going to be a testing session?
EB: Yes, exactly. A testing session, and maybe a little hectic because we have some other issues turning up, and at the same time, we may have to be conservative on some set-up choices because you didn’t test it.
SM: Next, let’s talk drivers. Last year we talked about Stoffel, and hoping that he would take the step up. Little did we know that he’d have to step in to the car in Bahrain to cover for Fernando. He really impressed everybody that weekend, didn’t he? Did he impress you?
EB: Yes, he did. Not necessarily by his speed, let’s say, more by the approach he had to the weekend. He was on the edge all weekend, obviously, because it was a lot of pressure for him to step into Fernando’s shoes at McLaren-Honda was a lot, but he did very well. I would say that 90% of the stress he could have for him joining the team now was gone because he did well, and we’ll say its okay, he’s ready now to step in.
SM: Now the time has come for him to step into the car, and he’s incredibly well prepared, so what are you expectations for him this season?
EB: I would like him to qualify as close as possible to Fernando, and finish the races as close as possible to Fernando. That’s the least I wish him, then it’s up to him to beat Fernando if he wants, but that’s not actually – and I say that with a capital letter – the target!
He knows very well that what I expect from him is just to learn his job, and be a professional Formula 1 driver. We all believe he has the potential to be a world champion one day, if every condition fell into place for him, but the day he has all the conditions is maybe two, three, four, or maybe five times in a lifetime of opportunity in F1, so he has to be ready for all of that.
What I want him to do is learn from Fernando, and experience how to put himself in a situation where he is potentially a Formula 1 champion candidate on the day that he has all of the conditions. Nothing else.
SM: And he has a good working relationship with Fernando?
EB: Yes, they respect each other. He‘s very humble, and Fernando is easy with him as well. Everything is fine.
SM: Just to touch on Jenson, I’m certainly missing his smiley demeanour around the paddock, and I know there’s a lot of fans – especially British fans – saying they are going to miss him on track this year. His role is reserve driver, and he’ll be doing simulator work. Do you know if he’ll be attending races this year, and what else he’ll be doing?
EB: Yes, I know what he’ll be doing. He’s got a bigger role as an ambassador for the brand, so he’s going to be at a few events, a few races, and he’ll be in the simulator. His role is of third driver, so he’s going to be busy enough, with his triathlons and maybe some racing in Rallycross.
SM: So, last question, and I asked you this last year too – what is your realistic target for 2017? Last year, you said to get both cars to the start line in Australia, and both to the finish line. I guess your answer might be different now to perhaps two weeks ago?
EB: I have my own targets, but I have to rely on our partners to deliver at least to the targets they’ve promised. My targets and the race targets would be to do better than we did last year. I don’t know where we will be, but this is a long process and everybody understands how tough it is. We are not doing anything wrong, and I don’t want to use bad words, but it’s terrible.
The thing to understand is that we are working like hell – I’ve never worked so much in my life – and it’s the same for everybody in McLaren, and it’s unbelievable. But it’s the price to pay to come back from where we were, and where we want to be, and that’s why I pay it, because we have not left any stone unturned. We have refreshed everything, everywhere, so the day we are ready, we will be properly ready, but it is just frustrating now that we can’t get the full package working like we would like.
SM: But it’s going to come?
EB: Yes, definitely. The pressure is not on me and us, but on Honda. Within Honda, for example, the pressure is raising massively on them from the board, so at some stage, it’s going to work.
And with that, Eric is off to his next appointment, his last words ringing in my ears. Make no mistake, this is not a team resting upon it’s laurels. Everyone at McLaren is working as hard as possible to get the team back to where they want to be.