Group 1: Dave Robson, Xevi Pujolar and Ayao Komatsu
Xevi can we start with you and specifically Théo Pourchaire. He was your young driver in FP1 but he didn't actually set a lap-time. What were his issues?
Xevi Pujolar: Yeah. Unfortunately, today was his session in FP1, as the first session for a young driver. We had a problem with the brake-by-wire system. We had a development item on the car, and unfortunately, it didn't work. We tried to fix it during the session but then it was obvious that we had to remove the gearbox and to fix it. So, it was not... We couldn't set any proper running with him.
Hugely disappointing for him, is he going to get another go in the car later this year?
XP: We have got another young driver session to do later in the season but we still haven't decided who will be driving for that session.
Now, let's look at this race going forward. It was one of your strongest in the second half of last year. Have you seen enough in FP1 that you feel better prepared for this race than you were in Austin last weekend?
XP: I think still too early, especially with a session with a prototype tyres. And when we look in Austin, at one timed lap, we were good. Then, in race pace, we were struggling more. So, here last year, we were strong, both in qualifying and also in the race. We'll try to replicate what we did last year, or even better, but we have to see in FP2, and then not even in FP2. I think we have to see. Everything is so close that we have to see how everything is evolving through the weekend.
Xevi, it's been a rollercoaster ride with the C43, this year, hasn't it? Peaks and troughs: Qatar very strong, double points finish. And then, as you say, we then go to Austin, and it's not so competitive. Why is that? What are the issues with the car?
XP: I think it's the same for all three sitting here, I will say, because everything is very close. We try to push with upgrades. They try to push as well. We bring upgrades and it doesn't take much to jump to the front. The front of the group or the back is just very little difference. Sometimes even at one lap, you can be okay but then in the race you're struggling a bit more, from track to track with different tyres, different conditions. It doesn't take much. We had a very good race in Doha, for example, in Doha Sprint event on Saturday, pace was quite difficult. But then on Sunday, it was quite good for us with both Cars on the points. In Austin, it was a bit different. Qualifying was good - but then struggling more. Here hopefully we can be strong along the weekend. That's our target. We've got another chance because we had an improvement in development last race. So, here we will optimise ta bit more. Track is also a bit different with less bumps. So, let's see. Let's hope it goes in our direction.
In what conditions is the car at its best? What kind of circuit layout? What kind of compound of tyres?
XP: I don't think now we've got... Because at the beginning of the season, I would say, OK, maybe when it's towards lower speed and hotter temperatures, warmer temperatures, we were better. But now everything is so close that, for example, we've been working quite a lot in all the conditions. Ambient, also towards lower track temperatures, or higher speeds in Doha, we had higher cornering speeds also in Austin. We were good in these conditions but then I think it's just for each specific condition and how we are in the race. If you can be more in free air, or not, I think then everything changes quite a lot, how the lap will evolve: do you have a good lap one in the race? Where are you relative to your competitors? And that can change quite a bit. So I would say, at the moment, it's just you try to maximise everything all the time, because we are all very close.
Well, how do you look at the last four races, and specifically, when we think of the Constructors' Championship, you're P8, just four points now ahead of Haas, how do you see it playing out?
XP: For us the target is still P7, ahead of Williams. But, as you say, now also AlphaTauri, they are strong, Haas had also the upgrade, they are strong as well. So we've got now races here, and São Paulo is a race where things can change very quickly. For us, this race weekend and São Paulo I think are crucial to see on which way it will evolve, if that P7 is realistic or not.
Ayao, let's come to you now. Can we start by talking about Oliver Bearman. He was, what, 0.3-0.4s off Nico Hülkenberg? How good a job did he do for you in FP1?
Ayao Komatsu: I don't think you can fault him: he's done really well. But all the way from the initial preparation, he's been very professional, very, very easy to deal with in every single process, I have nothing to complain. And then today, with the calmness, procedures he understood, he understood the objectives of every single run. He didn't put a foot wrong, really. I mean, he didn't maximise the Soft tyre. That lap-time difference you talked about, Nico's lap wasn't great either so you can't read too much into it, but in terms of his feedback, it was really good, engagement with his engineers, really, really good job. Really impressed.
Did anything surprise you about him?
AK: The surprise is how well he managed everything, really. Honestly, I can't pick a moment from all the way through that preparation where something was frustrating or difficult, including his management. It's been a really smooth process. It's been a pleasure to work with him and his management team.
Let's talk upgrades now. You took them to Austin. What conclusions did you draw there?
AK: It's still early days, because obviously Austin is a Sprint weekend. One hour to sort the car out with a completely brand new package. So, in the qualifying, for sure, we didn't get the maximum out of it, drivers didn't get the maximum out of it. In the Sprint it still showed some issues we had before with our original spec. That's why we took the decision to start both cars from the pit lane. You can say, OK, you qualified P14 with Kev, why did you start from the pit lane? But if you look at how we went in the Sprint, he was quickly going to fall from P14 backwards, so we made a decision: OK, a mistake's been made, rectify that, put the car in the best condition for the race, see what we can do. And I think you can see, especially from Nico's second stint, it was very, very strong. Even the first stint was decent. Third stint with Kevin, free air, was strong. So, we did make some progress. Main thing we are looking for is consistency, better tyre management and driveability. So we haven't concluded 100%, we've got more work to do, but there's some initial signs there that will be useful next year.
What were the drivers saying in the post-race debrief?
AK: Post-race debrief, again, main thing was, for instance, Nico's second stint, we should have probably maximised that a bit more. The strength is that we could do that stint. And then Kevin, again with the second stint, we had something we still don't understand with the tyres, that wasn't competitive - but first and third stint, he was pretty happy, and third stint he could push more than he anticipated, if you like. That is actually a positive sign, the fact that we could maybe push the tyres a bit more with this package. It's far from being conclusive but, yeah, initial impressions, those are the key things.
Ayao, could I ask you now to reflect on the 2023 season, how it's gone from a performance point of view?
AK: That's a difficult question. Obviously our launch car, it had a decent one-lap pace but really, we were eating-up tyres, so depending on circuit conditions, if it's hot or cold, front-limited, rear-limited, tarmac roughness, it changes, but really our weakness in race pace and behaviour in traffic - I'm sure you guys experienced something similar - that was extreme. And also, the ride of the car hasn't been great, so certain weaknesses we identified after, let's say, four races, those were the main issues. We tried to develop the original car but we weren't really finding the performance, and that's when we decided to change direction, and that's the package we got in Austin. But the fact the Austin car wasn't outright, let's say, five-tenths quicker was because we didn't press the button straight away, because we are still trying to get performance out of the launch car, shall we say, by developing it, but unfortunately we didn't find it. So, lesson learnt is that really that decision-making, how far we keep going in this direction, when we going to have to make the decision to switch? Because when you switch package, or completely the concept, you're going to lose lots of downforce to start off with. You have to recover it. So, that's the difficult decision - but yeah, I mean, it's difficult to really fault anyone in the team, but that's the decision process that probably we could have done better this year.
And did you see enough in Austin to confirm in your mind that it was the right decision to switch when you did?
AK: I don't think we saw enough in the Austin package itself, but of course that Austin package carries on in the wind tunnel and I know how it's going in the wind tunnel at this minute, so we are finding more performance, so I'm sure that's not a wrong direction. Is it 100% the right direction? Probably not. We still need to find out more but certainly it's a better direction.
And Ayao, how do you see this battle in Constructors' Championship? It's close between the three of you in here, AlphaTauri as well. Which racetracks do you think will suit your car of these last four?
AK: Honestly, I really echo Xevi's comment. It's just so close and small things can tip it over. I mean, if you look at our Sprint performance in Austin. OK, we changed the car spec but Sprint versus race, it was a totally different story. And then Qatar, we weren't expecting to qualifying that far ahead, and our Sprint performance was strong. So, honestly we have the same approach as Xevi: you have to go flat-out, maximum effort, every single track try to adapt as quickly as possible, improve as quickly as possible. And then, when the battles sort out, you cannot say, 'oh, next track we're not good, let's give up on it, focus on Abu Dhabi', or something like that. Every single race we have to try to squeeze everything out of it.
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