It isn't easy being the head of a Formula One team. And if you are the chief executive officer of one of the most successful teams in the business, McLaren Racing, the job is even more demanding.
Ask Martin Whitmarsh, and he would tell you how good one has to be at multi-tasking in order to lead a team like his (“one that gets on to the podium in 50 per cent of the races”) in the highly competitive and frenetic world of Formula One.
“As the head of my team, I have to take care of so many things. To pick today for example, I came in very early this morning, had an operational meeting with my team, and being the chairman of FOTA (Formula One Teams Association), I presided over the association's meeting, and later met my marketing people to discuss marketing strategies of the team.”
“Later I have some media work to do — meet BBC and other European TV channels. Then I have a meeting with the engineers on how to run the race before the cars get on to the grid for the race,” Whitmarsh reeled off during breakfast on Saturday, to which he had invited a select group of journalists.
The conversation quickly changes direction to McLaren's performance this season. The fortunes of the team, which works out of Woking in Surrey (United Kingdom), have risen and fallen, in turns — from the highs of pulsating victories to the depths of disastrous defeats. What's happening with McLaren?
“We haven't been very consistent. We have had some fantastic wins, but have also suffered some bad defeats. The nature of the sport is such that we never know how our athletes and the team are going to perform on a given day. It varies from race to race and that's the intrigue of the sport. The important thing is that we address the issues (that have affected our performance) and come prepared for the next season,” Whitmarsh said, his voice barely rising over the din created by his team members inside the McLaren home.
He refused to blame the aerodynamic packaging of the McLaren cars for his team's forgettable showing this season. He said he wasn't really unhappy with his cars' set-up.
“You see, we are happy whenever we take the chequered flag and unhappy when we don't. A driver or a team would like to have more power from the engine and more down-force and less drag. In the competitive environment of Formula One, you can never be happy,” he said.
When prodded for an answer on whether the season would have been any different had Lewis Hamilton not run in contravention of the laws of the sport and copped so many fines, Whitmarsh said, “Perhaps, it would have made a difference, but these things do happen. It is easy to reflect on what might have been, but I wouldn't personally worry over such things. I would rather look forward to this afternoon's race and see if we can win. I would look forward to the races in Abu Dhabi and Brazil later and see how best we can do there.”
He was very protective about Hamilton, who has of late earned a reputation for being a difficult person to handle.
“Not really; Lewis isn't a difficult person. I have known him since he was 11 years old. He came up through McLaren's junior programme. He has had great moments with the team.
The point is he is very critical of himself; he sets very high standards for himself and comes down very hard when his performance falls below his expectations,” said Whitmarsh, sounding every bit like a true patriarch of McLaren Racing.
Button the best
He also sang paeans to Jenson Button, saying the Brit was a very competitive racer. “Both Button and Hamilton have been very competitive, trying to beat each other and outdo each. Well, that's been the culture of our team,” Whitmarsh said.
Unlike McLaren's earlier boss, Ron Dennis, Whitmarsh has taken a lot of care to stay away from controversy. He downplayed the threat of FOTA trying to form a breakaway series.
“We (McLaren) never ever suggested a breakaway series. However, openly talking about the issue is not helpful for the sport. But then all teams are sensible enough to deal with the issue, keeping in mind the fact that the sport is paramount,” he said.
He is also not worried about the other major issue in the sport pertaining to spiralling team expenditures — “which is like arms race” — and FIA's attempt to put a cap on team spending.
“We are all sensible enough to navigate our way through this without doing any damage to the sport.”
On India's presence in Formula One, Whitmarsh was quite forthright: “It's a good start for India, having a team and two drivers in Formula One. But you need to wait a few more years to have a champion.”
He was of the view that talking of India in the same breath as some of the European countries was simply not right.
“Most European nations have had a very long history in Formula One, which is not the case with India. So India will have to wait,” he said as he parted with a firm handshake.