The Friday press conference in Austin was an interesting affair and the FIA team principal’s appearance before the F1 media is fast becoming the one to watch. The drivers’ press event on Thursday has become a dull affair where the questions are insipid and the pre-programmed driver responses reveal very little.
Christian Horner got proceedings underway appearing surprised at the announcement Toto Wolff would not be attending due to illness. Horner quipped, “I’m just very upset to hear Toto is ill and couldn’t make it, that his helicopter couldn’t fly unfortunately. Anyway, I wish him well and hope he’s OK. I’m sure there will be no fine, obviously. It should be about 100 million, apparently”.
Clearly Horner believed the Mercedes boss was avoiding his obligations with a deceptive excuse; presumably Wolff did not wish to face questions about engine supply and Red Bull.
The hot topic in the paddock this weekend is Red Bull’s search for a 2016 engine partner. When asked why Red Bull were not using the upgraded Renault power unit, Horner revealed “I think the situation for the Renault engine, for the updated version, which they are referring to as the D-spec version, Renault have confirmed earlier today that the conditions for it to run in aren’t quite right yet, so that has been postponed to Brazil, which for us makes more sense. We wouldn’t want to be taken engines out of the car here or next weekend in Mexico”.
This is a convenient revelation from Renault, and perpetuates the belief that some kind of agreement for 2016 may be possible between Red Bull and Renault.
Horner was then asked about the reports that Red Bull were close to a deal with Honda for engines next year. “I think as we sit here there has been a great deal of speculation and interest in what the engine supply we are going to have next year is. As we sit here now, nothing is fixed. There is a lot of discussion going on in the background and hopefully there will be a resolution fairly soon”.
The change demeanour of the Red Bull boss was not lost on those in attendance; throughout the gathering he refrained from his usual flippant or sarcastic responses and answered questions thoughtfully – even when a no comment could have been expected.
In stark comparison a red faced perspiring Eric Boullier looked uncomfortable from the off. McLaren’s ‘team principal’ appeared irritable and when asked about the Honda/Red Bull story replied tersely, “It’s difficult to comment, other than we are happy with our partnership with Honda and this is what we wanted to achieve, to be a works team with an OEM. I can’t comment obviously on what Christian just said or whatever happens”.
Did Eric the believable give us a hint that McLaren may be forced to accept a Honda/Red Bull arrangement so long as their ‘works’ status was unaffected?
Boullier’s mood did not improve when Daniel Johnson of the Daily Telegraph asked him about the nature of the departure of Kevin Magnussen from the McLaren family. The Danish driver revealed he was dismissed via an email from Ron Dennis’ PA on his 23rd birthday.
“So, first of all, he has not been fired, as you said,” Boullier countered. “I want to tell you that his contract was ending this year, so there was an option to renew it or not and we decided to not renew it for several reasons. We as McLaren [know] that Kevin obviously has a great talent and he has to be praised for that and he should get a drive in Formula One next year and his career should get there”.
Finally addressing the question in part, the McLaren boss shrugged and stated: “Anyway he will have a successful career I’m sure. As far as I am concerned by the process, I will not comment”.
Johnson then queried, “What does it say about the culture of McLaren?” Boullier looked to the MC for assistance and demanded, “Next Question”.
Maybe Eric wished he’d done a Toto and pulled a sickie too. But this was not the end of the questions on engines. Fernando Alonso made the bold claim on Thursday, “If we improve by two-and-a-half seconds, we will win next year.” McLaren’s chief was asked for his thoughts on the matter.
In something that resembled Rons-peak enunciated with a ‘ee-haw’ Gallic accent, Boullier replied, “It’s an easy question because defining targets are always easy on paper. We know where we want to be as McLaren-Honda and if we get there we can obviously get what Fernando said. I’m not saying we’ll be there but we know we want to be there. We are definitely working on how to be there”.
Yet in reality two and a half seconds is on at the upper end of the kind of gain an F1 team would expect to make year on year when the car design regulations are relatively stable.
The matter of Honda/Red Bull was to return to haunt Boullier as Alan Baldwin of Reuters persisted. “Eric, Adrian Newey said the other day in an interview that he understood that McLaren had a veto on Honda supplying another team with an engine. Is that the case?”
Clearly monsieur Boullier was now getting to the end of his tether, shifted in his seat uncomfortably and responded: “I think it’s better to not comment any more on this discussion because obviously as we said already there is a lot of discussion behind the scenes. McLaren and Honda are official partners and obviously there is a due respect of understanding from each party.”
Its not difficult to deduce from this that McLaren do not have a veto on any Honda decision to offer their engine to other teams. And further, Eric Boullier’s appeal to Honda for ‘due respect of understanding’ of McLaren’s position on the Red Bull approach, makes it clear the Woking hierarchy is most unhappy with this possible development.