Cyril Abiteboul from Renault, Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost, Otmar Szafnauer from Racing Point, Guenther Steiner from Haas and Honda’s Toyoharu Tanabe attended Friday’s press conference at Spa.
Q: Cyril, big change on the driver front for you for 2020 with Esteban Ocon joining the team. First, can you tell us why you made that call?
Cyril Abiteboul: First, I’d like to say it’s been a difficult call to make. Obviously Nico’s contract coming to an end at the end of this season, a decision had to be made as to whether we wanted to stay put with our driver line-up, or include a bit of a change. It’s been difficult because we all love Nico in the team. He’s been instrumental to the progress that we’ve made. We have struggled this season but last year he’s been instrumental in securing P4 in the Championship. He had a good seventh place in the Drivers’ Championship, which is clearly the best that we can targets but, you know, frankly, when you make a decision like that, you don’t just look at pure pace, you also need to look at the collective dynamic. And there is a dynamic we need to restart, reset into the team. And probably, we need to project ourselves into the medium to long-term future. So not just 2020 but also 2021, and what’s happening to his team-mate and so on and so forth. So that’s all of that but in particular the collective dynamic and what Esteban can probably bring to the team. Probably starving for racing, being super-happy to come back into racing, by nature, by construction because also he’s been out of a seat for a year. It’s all of these elements that we factored into the equation. Plus, also it’s important to say that we have, not a certainty because you can’t be certain of anything, but very high chances that Nico will be able to continue his racing career. So, just like it counted for us with Carlos last year, it’s also counted for us this year with Nico.
Q: And will Ocon retain any ties with Mercedes from 2020?
CA: No. He’s a Renault driver, that’s very clear. Mercedes will have absolutely no right on him for the duration of his contract. So, small difference is that his management company happens to be a racing team, and that’s Mercedes – but it’s a slightly different set-up from the set-up we had with Carlos last year, where that was on loan and not under contract with Red Bull – but he will be a fully-fledged Renault driver.
Q: Guenther, Cyril mentioned there that he’s hopeful that Nico Hülkenberg will stay in Formula One next year. Is he a driver that you would be interested in hiring?
Guenther Steiner: I mean sure. As Cyril said, and I think he’s right, sometimes you have to look at the whole dynamic of a team. It’s not all about the speed of a driver and if people like Nico’s on the market, for sure we need to look at that. We haven’t taken a decision as you all know. This is a thing you need to do as a team. To look what is around, how you can bring the team forward. I mean, we are not at our best this year, we were better last year, so we need to see where we can make improvements. If good people are on the market – in every area of the team, not only drivers, we look around and see if we can better the team and with that, can we better the performance of the team?
Q: You say you haven’t taken a decision yet – when can we expect a decision from you?
GS: I hope, honestly, in two to three weeks – because it’s good for everybody; it’s good for the team; it’s good for the drivers. It Romain stays, it’s good for him to know so he doesn’t have to worry. If Nico comes, it’s also good to give people a chance to make other decisions or to look around, so our aim is to decide in the next weeks.
Q: Franz, Alex Albon has switched to Red Bull for the remainder of the season. What is your reaction to that change? Do you feel he’s ready for it?
Franz Tost: The future will show. Don’t know yet. Alex did 12 really good races with us, he’s got 16 points and I must say, from the very first test onwards, I was surprised by his performance. If you remember right, I said after the first test that maybe he could become the surprise of the year. He is on a good way and I think that Red Bull will provide him with a fantastic car and therefore I expect good results from his side.
Q: And it’s difficult for Pierre Gasly who’s coming back to Toro Rosso. You’ve been there before with Daniil Kvyat, who took a similar route. How long will it be, do you think, until Pierre gets over the disappointment of returning to Toro Rosso?
FT: I don’t hope it’s a disappointment to return to Toro Rosso, he is welcome with us. It was only a short time he was not with us. He came to my office, I said to him: “ah, it looks like you were here yesterday.” No, he is really welcome and we have a really good relationship together, also between the engineers and if we provide him with a good car, Pierre will be back soon, I am convinced about this.
Q: He spoke yesterday about being disappointed. Do you think there will be any problems with his motivation?
FT: No, I don’t hope so. A Formula 1 driver must always be motivated and must always push the car to the limit and he knows that’s his chance, and therefore the motivation will be on a very high level.
Q: Otmar, we’re talking drivers, Checo said yesterday that he hopes to make an announcement about his future soon. Is there anything that you can say on the matter?
Otmar Szarnauer: Yeah, soon might be today!
Q: Well, how about now…?
OS: Well, I think we have a formal process of announcing, and yeah, he’s right, we will announce soon.
Q: Can you describe the role that Checo has played in the team and how integral he is to the team going forwards?
OS: I think both Cyril and Guenther mentioned it. There’s more than just speed and what you do on Sunday. It’s also developing the car and knowing the team, being able to compare your previous developments to the developments that you’re bringing and, because of Checo’s history with the team, of six years, he brings all that to the table. Lance, having great potential and a great talent, doesn’t have that history with the team, so you need a good mix. I think we’ve got that in Sergio and Lance.
Q: And this race marks the anniversary of Laurence Stroll’s takeover of the team. Can you compare where it is now, compared to before the takeover?
OS: There are many things that are different. The one significant thing is that we don’t suffer with the financial instability that we used to have, at all. That means we can plan our developments on the car, we can plan when we bring upgrades and they actually happen. We can plan our salary payments, which is helpful for everybody in the team. Apart from that, we have plans going into the future. There’s a new factory coming; we should get planning permission for that in October, probably start, have ground-breaking in the first quarter of next year. The plan is to actually move into the new factory in the break of 2021. So, although that won’t come to fruition for another 18 months, or so, those plans are happening today. We’ve added about 40 employees: we were at 405 a year ago; we’re at 445. And, like Guenther mentioned, if there are good people on the market, we’re interested for good people. We’re adding, we’re growing and we want to be more competitive. So, those are our plans going forwards – but it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Q: Tanabe-san, you’re running your spec-4 power unit here at Spa this weekend. What advantages is it bringing?
Toyoharu Tanabe: We bring performance improvement with the spec-4 PU. The purpose of the spec-4 is a performance gain. Because as always, as I’ve mentioned, we’re still catching up pace to make the gap between the top runners and then our teams. Honda should improve PU performance.
Q: Only Daniil Kvyat and Alex Albon are using it this weekend. What’s the reason for that?
TT: We discussed with our teams about the PU usage and then we considered the current position, and then usage for the rest of the season. So, then we decided this strategic application.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines/Racefans.net) A question to the four team principals. Next year’s calendar… according to the draft calendar announced yesterday will have 22 races, which you all had to agree to. Did any of you attach any specific conditions to agreeing to 22 races? And Cyril, more particularly, could you comment on suggestions that you requested an increase in the number of power unit components if the calendar went up top 22 races, please?
CA: I can confirm that we did. We asked for the principle that is already agreed for 2021 to apply for 2020. The draft regulations, which are just draft regulations for 2021, there is a concept that if you go above 21 races there is extra component allocation. So that’s simply what we asked on the simple basis that it’s very late to change the duty cycle of any component for next year. There was a bit of a discussion, as always in Formula One, but eventually we reached a compromise in Budapest that everyone managed to stick to, for once in Formula One, and eventually it was good to confirm the 22 races. We are happy to have specifically the same number of MGU-Ks as internal combustion engines. That’s going to make the lives of the technicians, the mechanics in the garage, an awful lot of simpler. Sometimes we don’t really think about these type of things but they do make a difference, in addition to the prospect of penalty. That was the condition that from the outset we mentioned. Otherwise we are very supportive of an extension of the calendar.
FT: As long as we get more money, if you have more races, I’m fine with it. On the technical side, from the power unit, has just been explained by Cyril, there’s nothing to add.
GS: We kept a low profile and didn’t ask for anything.
FT: Also not for money?
OS: I think we also agreed to shorten the amount of test days we have because we’re increasing the calendar, which kind of makes sense and goes to wellbeing of the mechanics and all those that travel. One of the conditions we all agreed to, if I remember right, was a shortened winter test.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – Autosport) To the four team principals please. Ross Brawn has talked about using the stable regulations next year to maybe trial some different race formats ahead of 2021. Would you be in favour of that and what sort of slightly different formats might we see?
OS: I think last time we got together we did discuss about some formats on Saturday to maybe mix up the grids for Sunday. We’ve got further discussions I think between Monza and September (sic). If we are to improve the show there is nothing wrong with trying and seeing how it goes, get some fan feedback, and if people like it and it improves the show, I’m all for it.
GS: Otmar said a lot there. What we are a little bit, I wouldn’t say concerned, but what we need to look at is that by changing the format the costs don’t go up – that we do more and don’t get more out of it. We need to carefully think about. There were a lot of things around but we didn’t get around to discuss the detail about it. So when we get to the detail there will be the difficulty because if we change format and it costs a lot more because we do everything differently, there is a point where it is not sustainable.
Q: So, for example, what would you say to having qualifying races on a Saturday?
GS: That costs more money, because you need more spare parts because you have two races a weekend, you know. You need more MGU-Ks, because they can break. So we need to consider all this stuff.
Q: Franz, your thoughts?
FT: You know, to change the race weekend format, maybe there are some good points in there. We will discuss it in two weeks, I think in Geneva we have another meeting. But the most important thing is that the teams and the cars are on an equal level on the performance side. You can have whatever format but if there are some cars far ahead of the others – one second or even more – then it doesn’t change anything. What we have to provide the fans is a good show and for this the performance of the different teams and of the cars has to be on a level within a few tenths of a second, like it is in the midfield. If you look currently there are three teams far ahead, but the midfield is fighting very close to each other with a difference of a couple of hundredths of a second and there are good fights in between the cars and they show good races and this is what the fans want to see and I don’t think this is so much to do with the format.
Q: Cyril do you think the format needs changing in any area?
CA: I think we could be a bit more progressive on the weekend format. I think we need to probably adapt slightly the format to the new audience, to the way that sport is being consumed. People are not really interested in sitting for two hours in front of the TV at two o’clock on Sundays, or three o’clock on Sundays. I think that’s something to take into account. Friday running in particular, with very empty grandstands, is for me a bit of a loss of an opportunity. So there is probably some improvement to be made. I think we need to be very careful about all detail associated with having some tests into next year, as again next year is tomorrow. The plans are made already; the engines are almost being built as we speak. So if you look at the amount of discussion we had to get to the 22 races, when we start talking about the detail of the consequence of changing the format even on a couple of races, I’m a bit afraid that we see that it is a bit difficult at this late stage of the season. So in my opinion we need to do that. But I think it needs to be done properly but with a global commitment, not just testing and maybe it’s a bit late already for next year, but clearly doing that for 2021.
Q: (Luke Smith – crash.net) – A question for Franz. You said there were no concerns about Pierre’s motivation in returning to Toro Rosso, but we saw when Daniil when returning to the team initially in 2016 how difficult it was for him to adjust back and how long it took it him to get over the demotion. Are there any concerns about that with Pierre and are Red Bull and Toro Rosso doing anything extra to help give him the support he may need?
FT: If we see any deficiencies then of course we will support him in any way. He knows our team very well. Therefore, I think it’s a very short period to adapt to this situation and once more if the car works well and if he had a good race result and he has some success then his self-confidence is coming back and then Pierre will have the form he had before. Don’t forget that last year in Bahrain he finished in the fourth position. He scored many points in the 2018 season and I’m quite sure we will see Pierre Gasly showing a good performance very soon.
Q: (Dan Knutson – Auto Action and Speedsport) Cyril, the team is not where you want it to be in the Constructors’ Championship. What do you need to change to get back up there?
CA: Well, I think first you are right. The team is not where we wanted it to be. It’s a very clear regression against last year. Less points, Constructors’ Championship – it’s clear. But at the same time what’s clear is the areas of the team that need to be improved. In my opinion we have made a good step on engine power, as demonstrated by top speed on a number of tracks that are sensitive to that. Driver line-up, apart from the comments made previously, is a strong one. Mechanically the car is good. We know what’s missing and that’s simply downforce and aerodynamics and that’s clearly the current focus right now. We are looking at improving that and we will draw an assessment pretty soon and we will move from there.
Q: (Jon McEvoy – Daily Mail) To Cyril, how near did you get last year to signing Esteban. Were there discussions with him, were there discussions with Mercedes? Did you almost get it over the line?
CA: You’re talking about last year?
CA: I think it has been publicly reported that it has been discussed. It’s been discussed to a certain level of detail. The old story is publicly reported also. We had the opportunity of signing Daniel, which was an opportunity also, which was an opportunity that was discussed but never really certain. When it became certain we had to make a quick decision. An opportunity like Daniel is not an opportunity that happens on many occasions for a team like us in construction and it’s an opportunity we decided to take. But frankly I’m very happy that we managed all together – Esteban, Renault, Mercedes, Toto, myself – we managed to put that behind and decide what was best for everyone this year.
Q: (Julien Billotte – Auto Hebdo) Cyril, Nico mentioned nationality as one of the factors behind Renault’s decision to sign Esteban. How important is it for Renault to have a French driver and also how tricky can it become for you and him if the performance does not improve enough next year?
CA: Each time we sign a driver we create an expectation and by creating an expectation it becomes tricky. Just look at the situation of the team this year. I think a lot of the critics we have this year are also due to the fact that we created a lot of expectation by signing Daniel. It’s the same. Each time you make a decision you need to accept the consequence. On the nationality, frankly, I would not put too much down to that. It’s a plus, it’s a bonus, but it’s not an element into the decision. Saying that it is an element into the decision would mean that we have sort of changed our factors or parameters when we evaluated Esteban and that would not be fair to Esteban, just like it would not be fair to Nico or Renault’s management. It’s a plus but what matters is that he ends up in a good car also.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines/Racefans.net) There are suggestions that one or two teams could be coming in in 2021. Certainly there are some plans behind the scenes for these teams to try and enter. How do you feel about it? Should Formula One grow beyond the current ten teams?
CA: Frankly and quickly – if it’s good teams, strong teams with good backing then it’s a sustainable project in my opinion, yes.
FT: I agree. Twelve teams, it’s a good number and you never know what’s going on with any other team. That means we need as many cars as possible on the starting grid. I think 24 is also acceptable from the safety side and from the race track and also from the space on the tracks. I would welcome them, yes.
GS: I think it would be a good thing to have more teams, as long as they are – as Cyril and Franz said – as long as they are well funded and high profile. But also what FOM needs to look after is the teams that are here. We shouldn’t go and just try to get new teams because new is better. It needs to be looked after, the teams that are here who are doing a good job, who made a big investment and just thinking more is better, that will not work as well.
OS: Well, I think in the future with the cost cap being introduced and implemented then there might be room for 12 teams but we do have to be careful about getting the money distribution to be a little bit more equitable so that you can have 12 sustainable teams.
Q: (Matthieu Mastalerz – FranceRacing.Fr) Cyril, you have said Renault underestimated the investments of top teams like Mercedes, which has increased more than expected. So is Renault, as a constructor, able or willing to increase its investment in order to reach its goal?
CA: The problem with that is a question of timing, because even if you make the decision now, you are not going to be able to spend really more before a few years, because spending more means more people, more designers, more manufacturers, more people in production and so on and so forth. And if you compound that to the fact that there will be a budget cap introduced by 2021, it’s already too late. So no, I think in reality we have no choice but to a certain degree continue with our plan, carry on with our plan. Accept the change, accept the difficulty, not use that as an excuse but be extremely determined on what it takes to be more competitive in 2021. Some people will have to manage a reduction of their operation. We will be able to stay exactly where we are or increase slightly, because the budget cap is still a chunk higher than what we are operating right now. That’s the reason why we would have liked it to be a bit lower but we understand that it’s a good compromise and a compromise that should make us more competitive than where we are right now.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – Autosport) Over the summer break, we had an update from F1 and the FIA on the progress of the 2021 car and the regulations. There’s obviously still a lot to sort before 2021 gets finalised on track and all of the off track stuff behind the scenes. How happy are you with how things are progressing? Is there any concern that the three big teams are going to veto or block the extent of changes that you want to make the field closer?
OS: I think we’ve got from now until the end of October to review, understand and come to a final decision. There are a lot of opinions in the room as to what should happen for the future. I believe we all want closer racing, that’s for sure. We all want F1 to keep its DNA of development and differentiation, that’s for sure. And most of us want a bit of cost-savings as well. So I think those are the considerations and we’ll all get together and hash it out and hopefully come up with a set of regulations towards the end of October that meets everyone’s needs.
GS: I would agree with what Otmar said. I think we just need to sit down, all the teams, and see where we can take it and hopefully have a regulation soon, because there are different opinions and to discuss them all here… we could sit here a long time. There will have to be compromises found to get this regulation over the finish line and I think one way or another it will happen. If the big teams try to change everything it’s difficult for us but it’s the FIA, the governing body and the promoters which have an opinion as well, so let’s see what we can come up with until the end of October. But I think it will be… we will come to a solution but for sure not everyone will be happy, 100 per cent, and that’s normally when you reach compromises.
FT: Yeah, there are a couple of sporting working group and technical working group meetings where all these new technical regulations are being discussed. So far I must say that the FIA and the FOM is going in the right direction. We know that we can come down with the costs which is covered by the cost cap and the money distribution should be much fairer than… We’ll come up with a different governance which is covered from the sporting and technical regulations side. We are going in the right direction. FIA and FOM should make the decisions. The date is clear, it’s the end of October and then we go for it. Up to now, I think we’re going in the right direction.
CA: As far as we’re concerned frankly we need to focus on three important aspects. The budget cap, all the refinements, even though the principle is agreed but we need to get that done and really put in stone. Money distribution, like Franz said, we need something that is more equitable otherwise we will end up with the same disparity that we have now. And governance. We are less concerned about the details of the technical and sporting regulations because these things will happen anyway and we are prepared to increase more power to Formula One and FIA that has gone up their team in order to think what’s right for the sport. They’ve done a lot of research; they know what’s good for the sport but we want these three elements to be fixed and agreed as quickly as possible.
Q: (Luke Smith – Crash.net) Franz, another question for you: picking up… you were talking about Max in 2015. Would you be able to reflect on what it was like working with Max through his first season in Formula One, how exciting was it playing that formative role in his future and was it immediately clear you had such a star on your hands?
FT: You know Max was coming from Formula 3 and in those days there were a lot of people who said it’s too early for him to come into Formula One but then we gave him some possibilities to do FP1 sessions and he showed that he can do it. He had fantastic car control and he, from the very beginning onwards, had everything from the technical side under control also and therefore we signed him, or Red Bull signed him and we had a fantastic season together and his learning gradient was quite steep and then we know in the second season, 2016, after five (sic) races he went to Red Bull Racing, won the first race in Barcelona and from then onwards he is there as a driver and he made really big, big steps forward, big progress and for me, Max, now, is the driver who is able – as I mentioned, just before – to win races and to win the championship. He has all the ingredients together, which you need for doing this.