Frederic Vasseur (Alfa Romeo), Guenther Steiner (Haas), Christian Horner (Red Bull Racing), Cyril Abiteboul (Renault) and Zak Brown (McLaren) attended Friday’s FIA press conference at the Singapore GP.
Q: Guenther, you’ve just confirmed Romain Grosjean for 2020. Can you just talk us through your reasons for that decision?
Guenther Steiner: We just woke up one morning and decided to do it.
As easy as that?
GS: Easy at that.
Q: How close was the decision – with Nico Hülkenberg, for example?
GS: So now we have to work, you see? We have to pull more out! We talked with him and, in the end, decided to go with Romain.
Q: Just talk us through Romain’s strengths… weaknesses?
GS: Weakness as well? Where should I start! No. Romain’s been with us a long time and we looked at ourselves and in the moment the drivers are not our issue, it’s the car. So in the end we decided to focus on the car and keep the other things stable and therefore we resigned Romain for another year. We know his weaknesses – a lot of people know that he has very big highs and very big lows as well. So, hopefully it’s time to change. I’m waiting for that and maybe next year is a good year.
Q: Guenther, how can you help him be more consistent?
GS: I try to talk always. If someone’s got anything to teach me, I am here. Just make an appointment with Stuart and I’m listening very good.
Q: Fred, on the subject of Nico Hülkenberg, is Alfa Romeo a viable option for him?
Frédéric Vasseur: We are focused with Antonio. Antonio had a very tough weekend in Spa but a strong recovery the week after in Monza. We want to help him to develop and continue to improve. It will be time to discuss about the future but I am really focused on Antonio, that I think he is doing, step-by-step, a good job.
Q: What has he got to do? What does Antonio have to do to retain his seat?
FV: Everybody is under pressure in the paddock and it’s not only the drivers: we are under pressure and Formula 1 is a world of pressure – but we have to deserve it, all of us, and Antonio also.
Q: And you feel he has the speed? Is it a consistency thing with him?
FV: The speed is there for sure, that he is matching Kimi in quali since the first one and we have absolutely nothing to complain about the speed.
Q: And so consistency with him. Is that what you want him to work on?
FV: I just want to score more points – but as does everybody.
Q: Zak, it’s been a slightly difficult period for the team since the Summer break, during which Renault have taken a chunk of points out of you. First of all, have you taken extra precautions here to improve reliability?
Zak Brown: No. I think you’ve just got to keep going racing. Our pitstop obviously cost us in the last race, we understand why so we have addressed that so hopefully we won’t have a repeat. No, you know, the last couple of races haven’t been great but that’s racing. Still seven races to go, so it’s going to be a close fight to the finish.
Q: How important is momentum for a team like McLaren?
ZB: I think momentum in the sport is important for everyone, whether it’s drivers or race teams. It would be good to come away from here with a good result, given we’ve had two poor races. This is a tricky track; who knows what the conditions will be. I think you’ve just got to stick to what you know and put those races behind you and focus on this weekend.
Q: And given McLaren finished sixth in the Constructors’ Championship last year, how important is fourth for you this year?
ZB: Well, we want to improve on last year. In reality, we were seventh, because of the points situation with Force India. So, on our road to recovery, we just want to improve incrementally, so fourth would be great but I think that’s about as much as we could realistically achieve. It’s going to be tough holding on to it but we’re up for it and we’ve got some very good competition from Renault and Toro Rosso’s not far behind.
Q: Cyril, same question to you first of all: how much importance does Renault place in fourth position in the Constructors’ Championship?
Cyril Abiteboul: It’s relatively important. It’s important in the sense that we were P4 last year and everyone is expecting, and everyone around us, including ourselves were expecting to be able to equal that result, if not to improve it. Improving, we know, is going to take time. So going backwards is not great. We had fantastic momentum from ninth, sixth and fourth in the last three years. We’d like that momentum to continue but, you know, it’s a sport. We’ve missed a number of opportunities for scoring big points – but we seized one last weekend. That’s good. It’s going to be an interesting fight. It’s a fight that we are also honoured to have – because McLaren is a great team, they recovered a lot, they have a very good chassis so, you know, it’s a decent and honourable fight.
Q: And with the confirmation of Romain Grosjean staying at Haas next year, that’s one less option for Nico Hülkenberg. How sorry would you be if him leaving Renault was to force him out of Formula 1?
CA: It would be difficult. Because, I think I’ve said it on a number of occasions, we feel Nico has been a pillar in the team’s construction. He’s obviously also a great driver. He’s a huge professional outside of the track, has got huge experience and, for me, whether it’s between Renault and Nico, or Formula 1 and Nico, it will be unfinished business. So, I can’t do anything but really hoping he will find a way forward but it’s a bit out of our hands now.
Q: Christian. Alex Albon has had two races with the team now. How would you sum up his progress so far?
Christian Horner: I think he’s done a very good job. I mean, obviously short notice when he got into the car but his drives in both Spa – particularly Spa in his first race, the recovery that he made to P5 was really impressive – he had a strong weekend in Monza as well. And so everything that he’s done so far, I have to say, the whole team’s been very impressed with.
Q: And looking ahead to this weekend, Red Bull has scored 12 podiums here in Singapore, which is double that of any other team. FP1 went well for you – so how do you fancy your chances looking ahead to Sunday?
CH: Impressive statistics but unfortunately Mercedes have finished ahead of us quite a few times in the last four or five years – so I think they are very much going to be the favourites here. Lewis is always strong at this circuit. We’ve got a competitive car and we hope to be able to take the fight to them. We pushed them hard last year. Hopefully we can go one-better this year. Max has been in fantastic form during the summer months and had a positive first practice – but that’s only one practice at the start of a long weekend.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Luke Smith – crash.net) Christian, on drivers for 2020, when do you expect Red Bull to be taking a decision? Do you think this will be something that will come after the end of the season?
CH: We don’t need to be in any rush. All the drivers that are under consideration are under contract, so we’re in a unique position where we don’t need to rush anything. So, we’ll take the fullness of time to look and evaluate the progress of Alex and measure it against Dany and Pierre.
And as a follow-up Christian, it is just Dany and Pierre? Would you look at Nico Hülkenberg, for example?
CH: Nico isn’t on our list. He’s a great driver and it would be a great shame not to see him continue in Formula 1 next year. He’s a professional driver that arguably hasn’t achieved his potential in Formula 1 and I very much hope for him that he does find a seat because he’s better than some other drivers that are on the grid and he should be in Formula 1.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – Autosport) Fred, you mentioned with Antonio, you want to see that improvement to the end of the year. With a decision for you for 2020, will you wait until after Abu Dhabi, just to make sure Antonio gets the full season to grow.
FV: Wouldn’t make sense as we are not in a rush at all. Could make sense to postpone the decision and have a look at Antonio and the improvement from Antonio but honestly I think he is on the good way.
Q: (Julien Billotte – AutoHebdo) Question to Fred and Cyril. What’s your opinion on the decision to not have Formula 2 and Formula 3 at the French Grand Prix next year?
FV: For sure it’s a shame for the French Grand Prix because it’s always two exciting races – but I think they did it for technical reasons. Last year they missed the German Grand Prix and it’s quite difficult for the junior series to do three or four events in a row. I think they have to skip one and next year will be the French one.
CA: It’s never good news for the promoter who’s concerned. So, for the French Grand Prix, they’ve had a hard time on year one because of some accessibility aspects. They’ve had also a hard time year two because of the show. So, I think we need to try, as Frenchmen in the sport to come up with some kind of offer for support. Last year we also tried to create some racing from Renault, like Clio Cup. We could also be considering Formula Renault to go there. So, we have a number of things that we could do to help and make sure there is a busy weekend and value for money for people buying tickets – because we all know tickets are quite expensive. We need to make sure there is not a vicious circle, and we are all here to make sure this event is sustainable. We still believe it is a great thing to have a Formula 1 race in France, being a French carmaker. With a French driver.
Q: (David Coath – motorlat.com) A question for Zak. Lando was at McLaren Shadow yesterday doing esports and I’m just wondering how esports is impacting on the team, if at all?
ZB: The esports, our Shadow programme, has been very successful. We were the first Formula 1 last year to really launch our own esports platform. I think esports in general is really good for motorsports. I think it become the new grassroots. Historically, it’s been karting, which is quite expensive and unobtainable for many people and I think esports can put a steering wheel in the hands of men of women around the world of all ages. It talks to the younger generation to help our fan base, so it’s been very successful, our partners like it, I think it’s good for McLaren, and I think esports in general is a good thing for motor sports.
Q: (Joe Klausmann – racingline.hu) A question for Fred and Guenther. What is your opinion about the coming budget cap? Do you need it? Is it enough? Will it help you?
FV: We can come back on this topic. For sure the budget cap is far away from our current budget but it’s the first step of the financial regulations. For sure, for us it won’t have a huge impact. I don’t know for Guenther, but at least for us, but that’s life.
GS: I agree with Fred. Once we agree, not many time but… We are well below the budget cap, but it’s in the regulations now and now we will see what is coming.
Q: (Joe van Burik – RacingNews 365) – A question to all. How do you feel about the fact that Nyck de Vries, who is about to be the Formula 2 champion, won’t be racing in F1 next year but will be heading to Formula E?
ZB: I think it’s great he got a topline ride in Formula E with the Mercedes team. Nyck’s an excellent driver. He was part of our junior programme some time ago and you know, there are not a lot of seats in Formula 1 available at the moment and I’m just glad he’s landed somewhere where he can continue to shine and have a career in motorsports.
CA: The only comment is that, we’ve said on a few occasions, we are still under the impression that there are not enough seats in Formula 1. Ten teams is really the minimum number and probably 11 or 12 would be better for accessibility to Formula 1 for young drivers, the Minardis of this world. Obviously Toro Rosso/Red Bull has done its own arrangement but that’s really something that is very exclusive to a happy few top teams. As Renault we would like to see more teams joining in and in particular to have a more dynamic system for younger drivers.
CH: It’s good for him to have a professional career. Obviously he had been around a long time – He’s been in Formula 2 I don’t know how many seasons now – and that’s always taken into consideration, in probably what has not been one of the most stellar Formula 2 seasons, this year. Good for him that’s he got a professional contract with a manufacturer in Formula E.
GS: I would say the same. Good for him that he got a contract with a very good team and he can make a career out of it. Not everybody can land in Formula 1. I think we have to see the good side, that there are other opportunities other than F1. It is what it is, but he has got a future and that’s the most important [thing].
FV: I have nothing to add. He’s a fantastic guy. He was flying in go-karts, he won the GP2…. [phone rings]… It’s Romain Grosjean!
GS: He’s calling after my comments!
Q: (Ben Hunt – The Sun) A question to Christian. A couple of stories after the last race about changes to qualifying on a Saturday coming next season. Is there any update you can tell us about? And is it a format that needs changing?
CH: There’s been lots of discussion about qualifying. For me, I actually think personally that qualifying works really well – the three sessions, it’s easy to understand, it’s not too complicated and it builds to a crescendo. For your relatively passive viewer it’s relatively straightforward. The problem we have at the moment is that obviously as a result of the qualifying the fastest cars is starting at the front. At a track like this, if it’s a one-stop race, then the grid position is pretty much dictate, bar reliability, where cars are going to finish. There needs to be the ability to have other strategies in a race that creates a little bit more jeopardy, creates more risk and reward, because we have seen some of the most exciting races, like Hockenheim, where all analysis goes out the window and you’re just reacting on instinct to what’s happening at that point in time, because you can’t strategise something like that. I think grand prix teams these days are so good at analyzing the data and maximizing the performance from the start to the finish of a grand prix, I think if we can add more variance to a race, but not doing it artificially, I think I would certainly be in favour of.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – Autosport) A question to all five, please. Another one on potential changes. Grid penalties have been a sore subject for a few years now. One of the suggestions that has been detailed a little bit recently is about potentially adding ballast to cars instead of having grid penalties for engine changes. Are you a fan of that? Do you think that is likely? Or do you think there is another option that might be a better alternative to grid penalties?
FV: I’m not a big fan at all of the ballast – not ballast success, but ballast penalty. I think it would be even worse for the race. At least when you have the penalty you start from the back it could spice a little bit the race but if you have the ballast penalty it would be even worse.
GS: I agree. The ballast is more difficult even to explain to spectators, all of a sudden when a car goes slower than the other ones. I think ballast is not my preferred view. We need to find a penalty system that is severe enough that they start at the back or the position to find out. But at the moment I think it isn’t working too bad, so I think I prefer this one than ballast by all means.
CH: I’d certainly agree on ballast. I think we’ve seen in other categories that it doesn’t work. It screws your whole weekend, not just the qualifying. The only shame about what we have at the moment is that it potentially robs the fans on a Saturday of seeing drivers going for a qualifying position. If we look at Monza, Max taking part for a couple of laps in Q1, not wanting to progress past Q2. I think if we could find a more balanced penalty than just straight to the back of the grid we should consider it, so that you are still encouraging drivers on a Saturday to be going for a qualifying position.
CA: Our position has not changed for a while. We are suggesting a time penalty by position to grid penalty. A time penalty you could serve under your pit stop or that would be added at the end of the race and that would just encourage better racing without altering the starting position, without altering also qualifying. And frankly I don’t understand why, I don’t understand the unintended consequences, I don’t understand why it’s not more commonly supported, but there must be a good reason.
ZB: I agree with Cyril, so you got one vote. I think a time penalty is pretty clean to understand. It doesn’t mix up the grid, you serve it at your pit stop. Strategy comes into play – when do you pit, tyres etc – so that I think would be the simplest, least disruption, the easiest to understand and would add some excitement to the race.
Q: (Chris Medland – Racer) Christian, Red Bull’s been known for the strength of its aerodynamic department over the past decade. With what you know of the 2021 regulations, are they a bit too prescriptive or are they exciting your aerodynamicists and people like Adrian Newey? And then for everyone else a similar question: how are your aero departments looking at that?
CH: I doubt there’s any aero department that’s read those rules and got particularly excited about them. For any aerodynamicist, prescriptive design is not in their DNA. Some of the regulations were released yesterday I think and there’s probably a few long faces in the aero department today, but that’s not just unique to Red Bull and our strengths over the last few years hasn’t purely been solely down to aerodynamics. It’s more digesting those rules, they raise some questions which will no doubt be put forward in the coming meetings which we seem to have endless amounts of and yeah, we will see where they end up.
ZB: I think I too would like to see more freedom expressed so when you have the budget cap then you’re fixed on how much you can spend and if the rules were a little bit more opened up, whether it was aerodynamics or others, then you’d have some more choices to make and you might see cars coming out looking a little bit more differently than they do today, because you could chose where you think you’re going to get your competitive advantage. That being said, all the engineers in this sport are pretty clever people and so they will figure out areas where they think they can make a differences, so I think it will still be a strong engineering exercise but opened up rules – because the budget cap kind of stops you from just spending – maybe doesn’t require that same level of restrictiveness, because you’ve got that seal that is set for you.
CA: Looking at 2021, it’s going to be such a step change I think it’s not bad to start with some things that are fairly prescriptive and according to the result that we see, then to progressively open up because the world is not going to stop in 2021, there will be years after that, we will have to come up with evolution like always to the regulations and it will always be the time to free up a bit. We still have our aerodynamic capacity and departments’ strengths and weaknesses so it will still be a possibility but I think we need to be careful because last time there was such a massive change to regulations – it was 2014 – and that created a cycle that I understand people criticised a lot for the fact that it locked up a performance differentiator so that’s why I think it’s not bad to do that initially and open up.
GS: Too prescriptive. Yeah, I would say so. The budget cap should regulate that the budget cap and the aero development, they can probably use the wind tunnel and CFD just for a limited time should be so it’s a little bit close but maybe in the beginning it’s good that we’re not going too far. I think we wait a few weeks until the aero people have got their proper comments because now they act emotionally about it but they will find a way around what they are doing anyway. My opinion is not set yet.
FV: I’m just a bit scared that if the room of freedom is too small at the end we will end up with like a monotype but it won’t be a monotype and we will have to spend millions for this.
Q: (Louis Dekker – NOS) Mr Horner, do you agree that this is your best chance for a third victory this season or is the progress you’ve made as a team so big, so huge that every remaining race is a big chance now?
CH: Well, certainly I think we’ve had good pace the last five races. If you look at our performance since Austria, Silverstone we were strong, we obviously won the race at Hockenheim, we qualified on pole and came pretty close to winning in Hungary, the race pace in Monza, if you look at Max’s performance from the back of the grid in clean air, he was as quick as any of the leaders, so that’s certainly encouraging across a cross section of circuits so hopefully, in the remaining seven races some will be better for us than others but hopefully we can be strong at all the venues coming up in the remaining seven Grands Prix.
Q: (Gaeton Vigneron – RTBF) A quick thought about insurance: it seems that quite a lot of young drivers in F2, in F3, are not covered by insurance. Do you not think it would be an obligation organised by the team themselves to avoid a serious problem?
FV: Honestly I don’t know that we are taking care about the insurance for all drivers. ART, for example is doing the same in Formula Two and Formula Three but probably with some other drivers it is not the case but probably we have to take care of this, that’s right.
GS: I wasn’t aware that some people are not insured, I wasn’t aware of this. For me it’s logical to get insurance basically, doing this sport. I don’t know why they are not insured. I don’t know about it so I cannot make a comment.
CH: Are you talking about life insurance or car insurance? When I was driving it was obviously down to the individual to take out a policy, because everybody’s circumstances are different. I would say it’s really something that sits with the driver to take out the policy that’s appropriate for them and their circumstances.
CA: As far as we are concerned, all our academy drivers are insured, that’s part of what they need to fulfil in order to qualify. Obviously there are different types of insurance, like everything in life. Maybe we need to be more drastic about the level of the insurance but we make sure that this is the case with our drivers.
ZB: Yeah. I think all racing drivers need to have insurance. It’s ultimately the responsibility of the drivers. In Formula One, all of our drivers have insurance, it’s super important, it’s not also inexpensive and there’s a lot of drivers coming up through the ranks that may not be able to afford it but it’s certainly very, very important, especially when you need it. I guess the FIA could look at or the individual countries that issue licences, that would maybe be an area that the race licence issuer could maybe insist on some level of insurance but then how much and is it enough and is it the right type of insurance? I think the big message is every racing driver should have insurance.
Q: (Joost Nederpelt – NU.NL) Christian, we saw in Monza that Ferrari has a very strong engine. Are you confident that Honda can close the gap any time soon?
CH: Well, I think that Ferrari are very much the benchmark in Formula One at the moment. We see that their straightline speed is truly impressive. I think the rest of the manufacturers are converging to a pretty close ground. It’s just Ferrari that has that outstanding performance, so it’s down to the rest of the manufacturers to ultimately catch up. They are the current day benchmark.
Q: (Oliver Davies – Sportskeeda.com) Just a bit of an insight for the weekend: obviously being a night race, what’s it like for teams to start later on in the day, what’s it like for it being a longer weekend, is it a long day?
ZB: Most of the drivers – well, I’m sure all the drivers stay on European time so I think for them they adjust, just like it’s any normal Grand Prix. Most of that is the case for the racing team. I think for the executives in the race team, such as myself, it becomes a much longer day. I got started this morning at about eight o’ clock and we’ll do that each morning, so I can tell you, I’m more tired than normal, but I think for the majority of the racing team they just adjust the clock accordingly.
CA: Nothing really to add because it’s a bit strange for your body because you try to stick to a time zone but everything around you is telling you something a bit different. It’s difficult not to either eat five times in a day or not at all in a day, so I’m trying to find a proper balance. No, but it can look like long hours and what’s a bit sad is that we are completely detached from the city. Sometimes, when after work, we like to walk into the streets and get a feel for the city in which we are racing and here, if you walk out at three or four o’ clock… I’m not finishing that sentence.
CH: First of all it’s a great atmosphere to race at night. I suppose the benefit for Zak is that he gets to have two breakfasts. It’s a bit weird when you come in at four o’ clock and you see people saying good morning and having a cup of tea and breakfast, and then seeing drivers milling around the hotel at four o’ clock in the morning, in the evening. That whole shift of staying on a different time zone, it seems to work and I think the spectacle here is fantastic. I think the race is always a highlight on the calendar. From a corporate point of view, it’s one of our biggest races of the year. We have more guests here than 90 per cent of the other Grands Prix that we go to, it’s the race that everybody wants to be at and it’s something you just adjust to and try and deal with.
GS: I agree. You deal with it. I think it’s a fantastic race at night and I think everybody’s doing it differently. There is not one thing everybody does the same. Everybody gets up when he wants and has as many breakfasts as he wants so you shouldn’t pick on Zak, Christian, that’s not fair! I think that atmosphere is good and it’s different, so there’s something to talk about and that creates interest, racing at night. Yeah, for sure, you’re a little bit confused, therefore I’m confused talking today so I’ve got an excuse for that as well and now I hand over to my friend Fred.
FV: I’m OK with Gunther!