Q: The speed with which Ferrari has closed up the gap – does that reflect that you’ve been perhaps a little bit conservative from last year to this, focusing on reliability rather than chasing performance at the start of this year?
PL: No, not at all. We put in a very aggressive programme over the winter – on the Power Unit, aerodynamics and other parts of the car. So, no, not a bit of it. We expected a very tough season with the second iteration of this new formula and we weren’t going to get through that without a lot of development on the performance of the car. I think credit to Ferrari – they’ve done a good job over the winter to make a big step to approach and even exceed our performance from time to time, so that’s set the place for a very tough competition through the year.
Q: What about your two drivers? Nico is yet to match Lewis – is that just that he’s not done a good a job or is there a technical story behind that?
PL: No, I think Lewis is just performing very much at the top of his game. I’ve actually worked with him throughout his Formula One career and I would say at the moment he’s really at his peak – the best he’s been driving so far. That’s a tough prospect for any driver to compete with. Nico’s doing a great job and we were particularly pleased with how he performed in Bahrain. We let him down at the last minute – which is why he lost second place. But you saw some fantastic driving from him and some great overtaking, which shows that he has great race craft. I think Nico is doing a good job – it’s just tough to beat Lewis. The season is still young and there’s plenty in prospect for a good battle between them.
Q: The rules can change in 2017. Can you name a couple of things that would be at top of your wish list, even if it’s not practical, that you would like to see?
PL: Above all, we must maintain Formula One cars as the pinnacle of motorsport. That’s what maintains the show and the attractiveness to a global audience. Even amongst topics such as cost saving, which often comes up, above all we’ve got to maintain that show and that means the cars must be truly spectacular. But in terms of rule changes, I think it’s not absolutely clear that we need to change the cars radically – that’s something being discussed. Performance will increase anyway through normal development and we may arrive at the position we want to be through natural development. I think an interesting area is the sporting regulations. There are a lot of thing we can do that would improve the show without spending a huge amount of money changing the cars themselves. Changes to sporting regulations generally don’t attach a lot of cost and can change the sport in subtle ways that improve the spectacle, improve the interest, improve the uncertainty, which is what you really want from race to race – that it not be absolutely clear who is going to win.
Q: Can you give us an example of what you’re thinking?
PL: I think we’ve been discussing ideas like the use of tyres, how tyres are allocated… I think we’re actually on the lookout for people to come up with interesting ideas. But I still say, in that context, that the sport isn’t in a bad shape in my view. And I don’t think we need to run around thinking we need to do drastic things.
Q: Pierre Gasly did a 10 lap run in this morning’s GP2 session. He started off with some 35.4s and gradually started doing 34.5s and finished with a 33.9s. Which is around 2.5s away from Mercedes but on a par with a lot of cars here, a lot of your cars. What’s the correct way of interpreting this? Why it is that this has happened here?
PL: I’m not a great expert about GP2 but it may be that they’ve improved a bit. Formula One is in an early phase of a major regulation overhaul. This is the second year of a set of regulations, so generally performance will increase until the next reset is required. Those resets are normally introduced to control safety through cornering speed, so I think we’ve got a period now where we will stretch out relative to some of those other formulae. For 2017 it may be that we need to give it a bit of a nudge and that’s what’s being talked about. Perhaps some more aerodynamic performance could be added – but historically we have always reduced aerodynamic performance step-by-step. I can’t recall us ever increasing it throughout the years.
Q: We’re all taking about making the cars go faster, changing the aerodynamics, playing with the engines, or whatever. But no-one seems to be talking about the tyres, when we all know the drivers are driving within themselves for the entire race distance, pretty much. Why not?
PL: That subject comes up repeatedly. I think it’s always been a factor in Formula One racing that you have to consider getting the most out of the tyre over a long distance. I don’t think there have been many tyres over the years that one could sprint with on every single lap. I think with the current tyres we have an interesting situation which I think has improved the spectacle a great deal – where the nature of the tyre degradation is such that cars are obliged to stop at certain points – and it produces a lot more variety. I think we’ve seen far more exciting races as a result since Pirelli came into Formula One. So, there is the aspect around drivers having to manage and not necessarily drive as fast as we would like – but I think that’s been an element in the past. It may be a slightly bigger element at the moment – but it also adds to the skill necessary from the driver. So, it’s still all part of an exciting package. And in qualifying, of course, they are going absolutely flat out.
Q: If you look at the World Endurance Championship today, Porsche, Audi and Toyota seem to be fairly reliable for an endurance race and they seem to have a great power output. Is there anything you could learn from what they are doing and apply it to the current set of regulations?
PL: I’m not a great expert on this, I’m afraid. I would just say that the Power Units we have are extremely sophisticated. They incorporate Hybrid systems which are very road car relevant and I think that’s been a great direction for Formula One. I don’t see a great need to change the engine formula now because we’ve only really just adopted it. I think it’s worth mentioning, talking about the World Endurance Championship, that these engines now are doing huge mileage compared to historically – four, five, six thousand kilometres compared to barely three hundred kilometres in the old days – so they are already endurance engines. I think that’s a point to note and a point which we should appreciate and celebrate.
Q: Next week there’s going to be a meeting with the strategy group where I think you’re going to decide on whether or not to have a fifth power unit. Given the disparity between certain Power Units there is a danger that the World Championship is going to be compromised in some way. Bearing that in mind, what do you think the chances are of there being a fifth engine permitted or agreed by the strategy group?
PL: I think the original reason that people talked about a fifth engine was because when we first reduced it to four per year, there was very little running on Fridays and it was seen that this was the explanation. So, the original reason it was agreed that we would look at introducing a fifth engine was to improve the amount of running that was done on a Friday. We would agree with it in that context. We will see what happens in the strategy group.
Q: We’ve been speaking about wanting to improve lap times. We always talk about cutting costs. I imagine that a lot of your R&D budget is actually spent on trying to circumvent previous cost-cutting attempts. We don’t want to play with engines, we don’t want to play about too much with downforce. Is there a potential that we could lose some innovative technology in 2017 or in the future? Maybe things like active aero or active suspension to improve corner speed without having to spend too much money?
PL: I think that where it relates to costs, sometimes we spend more money designing systems that get around the constraints of the regulations in an indirect manner. Suspension is an interesting example that has been studied over the last few years. Some of the suspension systems we have at the moment are incredibly complex, expensive and might be cheaper if they were implemented using electronics.
Q: You’ve talked about how vital it is that the technology is relevant – and not only to businesses, suppliers and engineers. Do you think enough is done to promote the technology side of the sport and, if not, do you think we could do more in terms of relating that technology to the fans?
PL: Mercedes has spent a great deal of effort publicising and making the most of the hybrid power that we produce. That’s been used in a lot of advertising over the last 12 months, making a big story around it. Hybrid is a name that I think now, through Formula One, it’s being more associated with a cool car rather than an uncool car. Of course, we could do more, but it is just the beginning.