Today's press conference with Toyoharu Tanabe, Laurent Mekies, Marcin Budkowski.
Q: Marcin, can we start with you, please? The car seems less competitive this year than it was certainly at the end of 2020. How much of a surprise is it for you and the team?
Marcin Budkowski: Unfortunately it's not completely a surprise because we had a few issues over the winter that we knew would affect our performance and of course we went to the Bahrain test and our fears were true if you want. So we knew we were on the back foot going into testing and then going into the first races. We are working hard on trying to improve the car. We brought some developments to Imola, we have done some more testing this morning, so we are making small steps in terms of improving the performance of the car, but the gap to the guys we'd like to fight with, the McLarens and the Ferraris, is a bit too much at the moment, so we are still working to close it but it will be tricky to do that in the next few races.
Q: It's interesting that you made quite a few changes to the car for this year. What's the plan? Is that to feed into the 2022 car? Is that why you did it?
MB: No, it was exclusively around the current set of regulations and taking into account the changes that have were made over the winter. A big part of the car was homologated. That was a decision we made because of the COVID pandemic last year and that was the case pretty much most teams if your want. We have tried to improve everything or change all the things we could change to make improvements. There is no particular cause for concern with the things we changed if you want, it's just that we lost some development time over the winter and when you lose time your competitors don't wait for you.
Q: Fernando Alonso was in great form as ever in the press conference yesterday. One of the things he said is that he is still refining his driving. Tell us about what it has been like to work with Fernando and how much do you think there is still to come from him?
MB: There is still more to come. In Bahrain, he was right on it straight away and he put the car in Q3 and everybody hailed Fernando's return and then Imola, it went a bit less smoothly and suddenly everybody is questioning his return. It's typical Formula 1 and you are only as good as your last race. Fernando was extremely honest. He raised his hand after qualifying in Imola and said: ‘look, the few tenths that are missing, I'm the one who needs to find them.' People forget that these cars are extremely quick, they're very, very difficult to push to the limit and we are seeing that with drivers that have changed teams over the winter and are struggling a little bit compared to their team-mate. Fernando has been out of it for two years. He's done a day and a half of testing in Bahrain and straight into racing. But with his experience, his talent and his determination, I have absolutely no doubt he will get back there.
Q: Laurent, it's been a good start to the year with Ferrari, particularly with Charles. Have you exceeded your pre-season expectation?
Laurent Mekies: Obviously we are coming from an incredibly difficult season last year so in the context of regulations that were pretty much frozen the most important thing for us was to be able to demonstrate that we could put our car back on the right direction in terms of development and luckily this is what we have seen in Bahrain and Imola. Of course, this is only a first step. We know there is a lot of work ahead of us, but it was crucially important for us to be able to demonstrate that the car could improve from where it was. Not only does it give us better lap time and better positions on the grid, it gives us confidence that we correlate better with the factory, we can prepare better for the race weekend and we can execute better the race weekend as well. So it's a bit of a snowball effect. It's only the very beginning of a path to recovery but it was certainly an important first data point for us.
Q: What areas are you focusing on to get more performance from the car?
LM: The key for us is to make sure we give Charles and Carlos a car they can be comfortable with and push with. Marcin just mentioned it: these cars are incredibly difficult. If you remember, Tom, a few years ago there was this train of thought that Formula 1 had become easy to drive, well, that's completely gone now. Not only they are the fastest car in the world, they are incredibly difficult. As a result our focus is to make sure the car is consistent, the car is allowing the drivers to push and this is where our focus is to unlock more lap time.
Q: Carlos isn't on Charles' level, particularly in qualifying. What are the main differences between them, given that the cars are difficult to drive?
LM: You know, I think if you think back to what the winter was for Carlos and for any driver that has changed teams. One and a half days of pre-season testing and then you end up in Bahrain and I think to see Carlos performing as he did in Bahrain straight away, it doesn't come by luck, it comes after a huge amount of preparation work. We are certainly only seeing the beginning of that. For us as a team, on top of that we are enjoying the interaction he has with Charles. They are pushing each other, they are listening to each other in terms of where the car needs to go for its development and it's certainly a strong point for us right now, the interaction between our drivers, and it's not something we want to leave here, it's something we want to further develop with them and with their engineers.
Q: Tanabe-san, Honda has had a good start to the season with a win and a second place. Is your power unit performance matching your expectations?
Toyoharu Tanabe: Yes, since the pre-season test and in the two races this year the Honda PU is performing as expected. Our current performance from the car is not coming only from the PU, so both Honda and the team put in a huge amount of effort to improve our performance during the winter season. Then, I think we need to keep that momentum through the year. It is important to achieve our desire.
Q: In just two races you have already had to change some power unit-related components. Can you explain what the problems were and how concerned are you about reliability?
TT: Yes, we had several problems during just the two races. We need to replace PU on Tsunoda's car due to crash. But we already applied countermeasures to the problems we experienced this year and at the moment we don't have big concerns about those problems. I believe we should not have those problems again.
Q: (Scott Mitchell - The Race) Marcin, could you just please explain the nature or severity of the wind tunnel issues you had over the winter and is there any risk of a hangover where it affects in-season development or even 2022 or have you got on top of it now?
MB: I think I said in an interview a few weeks ago and it was quoted in the press that we had issues ‘with the wind tunnel' as such and actually we had issues ‘in the wind tunnel', is exactly what I said and that was two-fold. We had issues related to the actual changed regulations and the actual various flow features that it kind of induced on the car, and we had issues with hardware, if you want, the tunnel and the testing as well. So the consequence is not that we lost more performance than others or lost differently, it's just that we lost time if you want, development time which is a valuable currency in Formula 1 because everybody has the same amount of testing they can do, it's limited by regulation, so when you are trying to stabilise your aerodynamic flow features or you're trying to get your tunnel to give you the right numbers the others, during this time, continue developing the car and put performance in it. So that's effectively what happened. We lost a few weeks of development and weeks of development just transformed into tenths of seconds. The aerodynamic features; is this related to next year? Well, next year is a completely different ball game. It's a completely different car, different set of regulations. In terms of improvement to our hardware and our infrastructure, it's continuous improvement. We've solved our issues so we continue to invest and improve our wind tunnel and fingers crossed, we don't get issues again next year but certainly it's up to us to improve our understanding and our development capabilities.
Q: (Dieter Rencken - Racing Lines) Marcin, I don't know if you're aware of this but apparently last week Mr de Meo told the shareholders that they will be reducing the speed limit of Renault's cars or the top speed capability of Renault's cars to 180km/h and in fact this was reported into Automotive News, yet your car carries Renault E-Tech on the engine cover. Is this not a bit a contradiction in terms that on the one side Renault can't be seen to be going quicker than 180 yet on the other side you brand it as a high performance engine?
MB: Well, I don't think it's going to reduce the speed of our F1 car, at least, not that I'm aware of. We are comparing apples and pears here. Reality is we are comparing road cars and the specificity of road safety and the issues related to that to motor sport and I don't think we should make the two really. We are here to compete. The technology we are using on our race cars here and Formula 1 cars is a hybrid engine as you know. We are putting more and more hybridisation in our road car models. That's what matters is we are making our road car engines more efficient, using the learning and technology we developed in Formula 1.
Q: (Andrew Benson - BBC Sport) Marcin, why did the issues - to go back to them - come up now and why did they not affect last year particularly when you were making gains with that car, right the way through to the end of last season? It seems to be a slightly confusing picture.
MB: Your refer to the tunnel issues I just talked about? Part of the issues I mentioned was related to the change of regulation, which I know other people struggled with as well for potentially different reasons or the same. I know what we experienced, I don't know what other people experienced during the winter, and part of it was just hardware issues, if you want, and they are not related to time or... you make changes, you improve your tunnel, you try to improve the way you test and sometimes you hit problems while doing that so there's no particular reason. It's just that the two unfortunately happened at the same time.
Q: (Luke Smith - Autosport) Marcin, Zak Brown yesterday published an open letter on McLaren's website, talking about a number of issues in Formula 1. One of them regarded the voting structure at the moment and he said that F1 would do well to move to a secret ballot voting system so that there weren't these unhealthy partnerships between teams and perhaps pressure being placed on smaller teams. Renault, given that it's a true independent as an OEM in Formula 1, obviously you've got no affiliations anyway which makes you quite well positioned to talk about this. What do you think? Do you think F1 would do well to go to a secret ballot voting system? Would it avoid some of the issues in these political battles?
MB: As you mentioned, we are an independent team and therefore we actually don't have an issue with other people seeing what we are voting for because our positions are clear and well known to the FIA, F1 and the other teams. But not everybody is in this comfortable position of being able to vote in a completely independent way and this is exactly what Zak raised, so we're in favour, not because it's going to change anything for us but because we believe that every team should be voting for their best interests, what's best for them and we've seen certain situations in the past, ones that Zak referred to, where some teams seem to be voting against their own interests and that's not good for Formula 1. We need to keep the balance right if you want and you can't have teams voting against their interests because of affiliations, as they call them. I think you should ask the question to my colleagues as well.
Q: Laurent, your thoughts please?
LM: The secret ballot option is in the governance, has been in the governance for a long while. It's just a fact that perhaps we didn't use it very often or certainly in the last few years we haven't done so. It's good to be able to use it. If we do or not, we'll do it systematically or not, it's up to any teams to request a secret ballot on any question or on the questions. It's already a mechanism that is in the governance with the FIA and F1 so we are in favour of it. You know whoever is not comfortable with an item that needs to be voted, it should raise a hand and make sure we get a secret ballot. If it's like that all the time, we are always happy so for us it's a good thing for the sport and we're fully supportive.
Check out our Friday gallery from Portimao, here.
Q: (Scott Mitchell - The Race) To all three, slightly broader one on the subject of team radio. Davide Brivio says that one of the biggest differences that he's noticed is just how much radio is used in Formula 1. I just wondered, in your respective opinions, are we at a point now in Formula 1 where we could dial back the amount of radio communication, or would that require significant changes to regs or even the make-up of the engines, to make them a bit simpler to operate?
LM: I think it's fascinating for the fans or at least for every people we talk to and when they these conversations, when they hear the type of exchanges between the drivers and the pit wall, I think it's a fascinating thing. I think it's great that it's now fully open and broadcast. I'm not sure that we should reduce or remove that. I think it's striking to see the capacity of the drivers to be able to exchange with their engineers as they are driving as fast as they can around the track. It's part of their skill set. It's probably also coming with the next generation, with the younger guys that are able to do that while driving the car so for us we think it's a great thing. We have tried in the past to cut down this communication but I think we all moved back very quickly from that because it's just a small part of the show that we remove from the people watching.
MB: Yeah, I agree with most of what Laurent said. Additionally, there is the fact that we have the link, if you want, between the engineers and the pit wall and the driver means that there's a number of other conversations going on in the background before we actually communicate or ask the driver to do something and that's part of what Davide is referring to. It's not on the fact that we communicate with the drivers during the race and therefore give them indications or exchange on things like tyres and strategy, but there's also an awful lot of other channels going on. You see on the pit wall there's all the intercom channels - I think I have 24 channels on my pit wall setting - which are chatter on how to make things better. Then it's channelled into very few messages actually going to the driver, it's part of Formula 1. There's a huge complexity and part of it is optimising the car performance, part of it is making sure the car is safe on the track, part of it is giving indication to the driver not only of performance but also on traffic and things like this. It's difficult. As Laurent said, we tried in the past to clamp down and it was a little bit artificial, if you want, it wasn't natural to do that. There were some suggestions that we should make more channels available rather than less and some of our internal conversations and I think for us we're not really comfortable with because there's lots going on in the background but let's explore actually how we can engage the public more because I think the people, the fans, the hardcore fans that follow everything, they would love to hear some of the conversations going on in the background.
Q: Tanabe-san, would it be possible to simplify the engine, to cut the need for so much communication with the drivers?
TT: The engine side, the current control is very complicated. So during the race, basically we set our strategy in the beginning of the race and then in terms of any problems or unexpected things happening during the race, then radio communication is very important for the PU side as well.
Q: (Laurence Edmondson - ESPN) Marcin and Laurent, I wonder what your views are on sprint qualifying and have your teams been able to simulate what the races might look like? There seems to be a bit of a concern that if your driver is running, say, P8 there's not huge incentive to push for P7, so are we were going to get the exciting racing that the fans were hoping for?
LM: Well, at first we are big supporters of the new sprint qualifying format. We already pushed for it last year, if you recall. Somehow it's been delayed one year but we are very happy that we get to try it this year. You are right, there is no guarantee that we don't find small loopholes here and there that defeat, a little bit, what we are trying to achieve but we are all for a more exciting format. If there is a way to make the sprint qualifying format even more exciting in the development for next year, we will be supporting it so yes, we have been doing collectively, with all the teams, with the FIA, with F1, quite a few simulations to get to this set of regulations. It doesn't mean that they are without any loopholes or without any items that we will want to alter but certainly very happy to go for it and see what it does and make them better for the following year.
MB: Similar position, really, but our view on it is let's try, what's the downside. I know there's a lot of hardcore fans who think that the format shouldn't change because why? It's a good format now but effectively we still have qualifying, as we have now, we still have the race and we're just adding something and that something is extra racing that replaces a practice session and I know there is concern that part of racing might be a bit dull because there's not tyre changes or strategy but equally every time you put twenty race drivers in these cars on a track things can happen and I don't think it's going to be very different to races, we will have some very exciting sprint races or sprint qualifying races and we'll have some boring ones but reality is, beyond what we all thing in terms of our relative competitiveness, for all the people at the track, they will see qualifying on Friday, they will see a short race on Saturday and they will see a real race on Sunday and I think if I was a fan in the grandstand, it sounds pretty exciting, it sounds pretty good value for money for a three-day ticket.
Q: (Dieter Rencken - Racing Lines) Marcin and Laurent, what sort of criteria will you apply this year to decide when to stop development on the 2021 car and move across to 2022, particularly Laurent because Ferrari used to have this big budget so they could afford to do two cars simultaneously but obviously that whole ball park has changed for this year?
MB: It's a question we ask ourselves every year and as Dieter rightly says you have a limited amount of resources and you have to make your choices. We certainly have a bit less resources than Ferrari or the top teams to do that so we are more used, if you want, to having to make difficult decisions and difficult choices. The reality is just two criteria: one is, at the moment, the '22 regs are very, very immature and every time we actually go in the tunnel and testing we have pretty significant gains so that means it's a very fast evolving prototype because it's so immature. And at the same time, the gains we are making on this year's car because of relative regulation stability are quite small. So we have to make a call between how much longer can you work on this year's car for potentially small gains, against what are you going to sacrifice for next year and once you approach it this way, it's fairly clean that there's more to gain, working on next year's car than there is to gain on this year's car, and it's painful because we are all racers and we all want to - especially when we're in a catch-up game - to actually accept that we're not going to develop this car for as long or as much as we would like to but in the big picture that's the right thing to do.
LM: Very similar here. I think Mattia consider it last week. It's for us very clear, the vast majority of our resources are on 2022. It's an efficiency race now. We have to chose, we have made our choice and we are pretty much on full push on 2022. It doesn't mean that you will not see things coming here and there but certainly the last majority of the effort has switched already. As Marcin said, already on one side it's painful because the gaps are small this year but on the big picture it's clear for us where the strategy needs to be pushing and that's for next year's car. Again, it doesn't mean that we will not have a good fight with the midfield during the next twenty races but we'll have to do that on a race-by-race basis without counting on the flow of parts coming.
Q: (Chris Medland - Racer) Marcin, a big focus at the start of this year has been on aero issues and rate concepts across different teams, but the two guys next to you seem to have made bigger changes to their power units than yourself and Mercedes did over the winter. Is that something you've seen play out in terms of performance and the pecking order in the early part of the year?
MB: It is true and it's early days and we all do GPS analysis and competitiveness analysis; the reality is quite tricky to do and you need the data from a few races to build a good picture but yeah, we kept pretty much the same power units than last year. We've done some small evolutions to it and that's less than what our competitors did. It was a strategy, we're having a completely new power unit for next year and we're talking about our arbitrating the '21 car with the '22 car, well, it's the same for us. We have limited resources on the engine side and we need to chose our path carefully and we felt that it was a bigger gain to have in terms of producing a whole new power unit for next year and if the sacrifice was to keep the same power unit this year then it was worth doing. As a result, we are suffering a little bit this year in terms of competitiveness but you have to use your resources in the smartest way and that's the choice we had to do.
LM: For us, for sure, we were trailing the field last year in terms of PU performance. It was a big focus for us for this year, especially in context of the chassis side was actually pretty much so we got some of the performance back so we have closed the gap a little bit compared to our competition. It's not enough, we are still pushing hard to see what are the next steps and how to close it further but it was certainly part of the needed improvement that we brought to this year's package.
TT: I think it's a little bit difficult. You cannot tell only PU performance so both Honda and the teams put a big effort during the winter. It comes from that, so we are basically happy with our current PU performance but we are thinking it's not top-level yet so we keep pushing.
Check out our Friday gallery from Portimao, here.