In a new format, Thursday’s FIA press conference was split into two parts with Lewis Hamilton in the first and his new team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, in the second.
PART ONE: DRIVERS – Lewis HAMILTON (Mercedes), Sebastian VETTEL (Ferrari), Daniel RICCIARDO (Red Bull Racing), Fernando ALONSO (McLaren)
Let’s start with Lewis Hamilton – a two-time Australian Grand Prix winner, record five times pole sitter here at Albert Park? Lewis, you and the other drivers have spoken about how much you enjoy driving this new generation of new cars. Could you perhaps give us an idea from your own point of view of a few areas you particularly like about it?
Lewis HAMILTON: Well, firstly, hi everyone, it’s good to see you, it’s good to be back. I don’t know, as racing drivers and in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and you always want to go faster and the cars are faster than they were last year. And the challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on track is a great challenge. It’s more in the direction of how Formula One should be, in the sense of the physicality side of it. We are athletes, and Formula One should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series. In the previous years that’s not been the case. To the level we train to it’s relatively easy for us to, but now you are going to have to push the boundaries, which I like.
There’s a saying in sport – never change a winning team. But you have a new Mercedes technical boss and a new team-mate. How’s that all working out?
LH: So far, great. I sat down with James and had a great conversation with him and he’s really blended well into the team and super-excited to work with him. It’s always great to have great new creative minds and he’s one of the smartest people I have ever met, if not the smartest. I’m excited to see what he can bring out of me and the team and all the guys we’re working with. Valtteri has, as I said before, Valtteri has been gelling really well into the team, working really hard to be the best he can be, which is all I want.
Sebastian coming to you, of course 2011 Australian Grand Prix winner. You had a good chance to win this race last year and the recent testing would suggest you will be in the hunt again on Sunday. Is there a more solid baseline do you feel to this year’s Ferrari attack.
Sebastian VETTEL: We’ll see. So far we don’t know anything. For all of us it will be exciting to find out where we are on Saturday/Sunday, to get a first impression. For us a lot of new things last year didn’t really go the way we expected, so I think for this year we have really focused on ourselves. We have tried to do our job back in the factory and in testing… I think testing times, I don’t think they are that crucial, I think it matters much more what you show from here onwards. We’ll see. I think we are a bit in the dark like everyone else, not knowing what other people have done. For ourselves we can be reasonably happy, we did decent mileage, we didn’t have any major issues with the car and hopefully we can carry that momentum into the race.
Well, the car looks pretty competitive but the real question I guess is how it will do in qualifying. Ferrari have only taken five pole positions this decade, since 2010, so how have you addressed that? Have you got a go-faster engine setting for the final part of qualifying?
SV: Not necessarily. I think we worked on all areas, trying to improve. Obviously we all know that qualifying is important to have a good race, so the higher up you qualify the better the chance you have in the race. Statistically it doesn’t look that good, so hopefully we can turn that around.
Fernando, coming to you, 2006 winner here of course, there’s no hiding the fact that McLaren and Honda are in a very difficulty position at this stage. Do you have any expectations at all for this season?
Fernando ALONSO: Well, I think let’s wait and see. We have only done the testing period, so I think the first race now will put things a little bit more clear. It’s a question mark also for us where we exactly are. We were not able to push the car to anywhere close to the limit at any lap on the testing, due to different problems. Let’s see. If we can have a good first weekend, see a little bit more of the potential of the car and hopefully see where we are. But yeah, still a long way to go for us and a lot of work to do.
It’s been only three weeks since testing began and the problems came to light. Have you and team been able to put the rescue plan in place yet or is that something that’s going to come in the next few weeks?
FA: The team is always working to improve the situation – to word as hard we can, to identify the problems and to improve those areas. I guess everyone did the maximum in the last three weeks and let’s see what we can find tomorrow on the track and that’s more a question for Eric and Honda.
Daniel, it’s a stat they don’t care for much around these parts, but no Australian has won the Australian Grand Prix since it became a championship round in 1985, so come on Dan, are you going to put that right this weekend?
Daniel RICCIARDO: I’ll try. I’ll try to. It would be nice. If anyone could win just one race they’d always say their home, so that’d be cool, it would be good.
SV: Didn’t Alan Jones win here?
Not since it became a world championship round, no.
SV: So what race did he win in 1980?
DR: That was the world championship. He’s here; I’ll ask him.
Daniel, do you want to add anything more?
DR: I’d love to. We’ll see what happens. I’m prepared. As Lewis touched on, it’s more physical this year and I think we’ve all done our work in the pre-season. I’m sure all of us up here feel like we’re coming in as well prepared as possible and it’s been fun to put more emphasis on that, on the training. The cars are more enjoyable. They are going to be fast. For the fans here this weekend to see the cars on track, the cornering speeds, I think they’ll definitely see that. Hopefully we’re cornering quicker than anyone else.
Well, you got a really good look at your team-mate Max Verstappen in the second half of last season. How tough are the battles between you two this year?
DR: Hopefully tough. Hopefully we’re fighting for victories, I think that would be something we would welcome. He’s obviously fast. It’s his third year now and although he’s young, he’s no longer a rookie anymore so I think we both carry a bit of experience. I think the team is excited to see how we go and I think everyone else is. They’re starting to hype it up a little bit. Hopefully it’s hyped up by the fact that we’re fighting at the front, that’s what we both want.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Ysef Harding – Xiro Xone News) I want to say good afternoon to everyone and I want to wish us good press conferences for the rest of the season and a good, robust conversation. This question is for the entire panel. This year we have some new owners, the sport is owned by Liberty Media and they have a big, bold vision for the future of F1. What would be your top three wishes for the new owners of Formula One?
DR: A race in Vegas.
SV: A race in Germany.
DR: That’s it; I’ve said mine.
LH: Miami race…. More ladies in the paddock? More paddock access to some women, there’s too many dudes in the paddock.
LH: V12s, I agree.
FA: I agree. I agree with everyone… equal engines for everyone.
LH: I don’t agree with that one.
DR: But not electric.
LH: And not Honda. I’m kidding…
Q: (Andy Benson – BBC) We had Charlie Whiting in here a couple of hours ago and one of the things he was saying was that the so-called ‘Verstappen rule’ has been removed, just leaving the general catch-all regulation about potentially dangerous driving. Are you all happy with that situation?
SV: I don’t know. I’m not…
You’ll be told tomorrow.
DR: We’ll be told tomorrow? You know everything before us! Let’s see. I think we can… the good part of it is it means less decisions to be made on track. If they leave it up to us I guess the positive is that we sort it out on track. Hopefully we can get redemption if we feel like something has not gone our way. We’ll see., I like being able to race. That’s the positive from it.
SV: Will I get my trophy back… it makes sense!
DR: I guess he wants his trophy back from Mexico. It was a pretty small one actually. Right, I’ll shut up.
Q: (Leon Alepidis – F1fan) A question for Daniel. For many years it has been talked of to have a second grand prix in the USA. In the past Germany, Spain and Italy had a second grand prix in the same year. Your thoughts about a possible second grand prix in Australia and where would you like that to be?
DR: I’m going to sound greedy if I ask for another one here. We’ve got some great circuits… Seb’s saying Bathurst. That would be an amazing circuit for sure. Adelaide, I believe… I was very young but I did go to the 1993 grand prix, I was very young but I heard Adelaide was amazing, they still do it with the V8 supercars. Phillip Island, they host a great event for MotoGP, so there’s a lot. I wouldn’t say no, but I feel a bit greedy asking for more than we have got already. I think everyone else would like to come here. You guys like Australia, right?
Q: (Rebecca Williams – News Ltd) A question for Fernando. You were involved in a frightening smash here last year at Albert Park. Just wondering how you feel about your return to the track this year, and if that’s something that’s going to be at the back of your mind when you get out there, specifically at that corner?
FA: Not really. You try always to forget all the accidents, all the moments you were scared in the car, so yeah, it was a pretty big one here last year but it will be perfectly OK and I’m really looking forward to go back here. I like the circuit. I like how passionate the fans are when we are on the track so it will be a good experience to go through those turns.
Q: (Flavio Vanetti – Corriere Della Sera) To Sebastian. You said it’s too early to have a judgement on your car. But do you feel this car has enough quality to let you fight for the title?
SV: Well, it’s March now! I think if you are in a fight for the title that’s a question for October, November. I think looking at the performance of the cars obviously it was expected to be a big step up and that’s how it felt on the track. I think that’s what we all said when we first got out of the car, that it’s a big step forward. It’s not entirely fair to judge to the previous years because it’s a different formula but I think they will be the fastest cars we have ever driven. Naturally, the day I came into Formula One the cars got a bit faster, a bit faster, then they tended stall a little bit. We distributed straight line speed versus cornering speed and I think for us what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed and I think we are back to the level we were probably ten years ago, and maybe a bit faster. For us it’s always nice to have the feeling that these are the fastest cars we have ever driven. On competitiveness we are all here to find out, that’s why we go racing I guess.
Q: (Heikki Kulta – Turun Sanomat) Sebastian, last year it was very tight between you and Kimi in qualifying. With this better car do you think it can be even tighter or is it easier for you in qualifying against him?
SV: I think it’s never easy. You try to get the best out of yourself, out of your car for one lap. I think last year has been closer than the year before but it’s always been fairly close. Obviously I want to be in front of him and he wants to be in front of me but I think starting the season priority number one is hopefully we are in front of the others. But as I said its still very, very early. We try to do the best job for ourselves and the team and we go from there.
Q: (Andre Leslie – DPA) Question for Daniel. Daniel, this week in Australia – I’m sure you’ve been here longer than that – how has it been with the pressure and the reception that you’ve received around the country? Is it something that is a weight on your shoulders or is it something you look forward to?
DR: It’s not a weight on my shoulders. It means more work, for sure. This week is easily the busiest F1 week of the year for me. But it’s all positive support. It’s kind-of overwhelming actually. I’m surprised that so many people are getting behind me and the event but it’s obviously cool. It’s nice and encouraging to see. I hear that ticket sales and everything is up quite a chunk from last year. I try to enjoy it. I appreciate it won’t last for ever. It’s demanding, it’s a tiring week but it’s pretty cool to see so many people supportive of me and the event. I don’t see it as pressure in terms of, if I don’t win on Sunday, they’re all going to leave the track and say I’m hopeless and never come back. They want to see me do well and that’s how I see it. It’s just a bit of extra motivation for me and I think the drivers’ parade on Sunday I’ll see that and feel it and get me jacked-up for the race.
Q: (Abhishek Takle – Mid Day) Question for Fernando. Fernando, you’ve spoken about how much you’re enjoyed driving these cars, this new generation of cars, despite all the problems in testing. I just wanted to ask you, does the joy of these new cars take away some of the pain – or is it a case that if you’re not competitive then it’s no-longer fun? Thank you.
FA: No, I think they are two separate things. One is how you enjoy and how much adrenaline these cars are giving to you on the cornering speed. Comparing with the last couple of years I think it’s a good step forward. Not only for us drivers but also for the spectators: for the people here in the grandstands and watching on television they look spectacular and that’s a positive thing. And then, yeah, naturally I think all sportsmen, we are competitive and y’know, when you arrive to race like we are doing now in the first grand prix of the year, you know that joy is together if you are competitive. Let’s see how competitive we can be this year. At least when you are driving alone, you are enjoying. Then when you have a car close to you and they go much faster than you, that’s a little bit less enjoyable.
Q: (Jerome Bourret – L’Equipe) Do you think that the new regulation can stop Mercedes’ domination or do you expect Lewis to still be the man to beat this weekend and this year? And Lewis, do you consider yourself the favourite for the Championship?
SV: Well, I think he must be. Mercedes obviously has been in very, very strong form the last three years and even though we changed the regulations, if a team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what you do with the rules. I think it’s very clear who is the favourite. For all of us sitting here, we are trying our best to catch-up. How much we have succeeded, we will see and, as the season goes on, I’m sure the cars will have big progression and all the teams will bring lots of stuff to develop the cars. So, whoever’s in a good place in the beginning and still in a good place at the end will have a chance.
DR: I think for everyone, it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago, everyone wanted to see someone else win. So it’s natural. People like change. And for us drivers not being in a Mercedes, we want to see change as well. I think even to have more cars fighting for a win, it makes it more exciting. I’ll let Lewis answer but I think if he wins a race against four of us as opposed to just maybe his team-mate, I think that reward is bigger as well. So, I think if you can win against more, it’s not only good for the fans but that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. We’ll see. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can maybe take a few points away as well, it opens up the Championship over the long term.
See it that way Lewis?
LH: I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment and I think they will definitely be the favourites but we’ll find out more going into the weekend. It’s interesting to see Sebastian’s usually a lot more hype and I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing. I’m very keen to see what Red Bull bring because they were quite far behind through testing, at least compared to Ferrari and didn’t see them bring many upgrades – or an upgrade as far as I could see. So I’m assuming they’re bringing something here which I’m excited to see what they do bring. And I agree with Daniel in the sense of having more teams and more drivers up at the front fighting for wins, that’s what racing is all about. I’m hoping that’s the case. We, as a team, I don’t believe, as far as I know, no team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes, so that is our goal as a team. We’re here to win, we’re here to do something no-one else has done. Whether or not we’re in the right place at this moment in the season, we’ll find out. But I have every belief in my team that we can do that.
Q: (Louis Dekker – NOS) Can you remember how many cars were on the grid during your first grand prix weekend. And the real question is, is 20 enough to keep the public satisfied.
FA: Yes. Enough. Obviously, it’s nice to have many cars on track and many teams in Formula One but at the same point it’s a sport that’s quite difficult to get in, quite difficult to stay for many years. We see with some of the smaller teams how they struggle to keep their financial situation healthy in the year. I think to have a good ten teams and 20 cars on track is more or less the number that we see in Formula One for many years. I think it’s OK.
Q: (Giles Richards – The Guardian) You just touched on this. The last three years you’ve been fighting for the title, just between you and your team-mate. Would this year be more significant, would you enjoy it more if it was a two- or three-way fight with Ferrari, Red Bull and other drivers. Would it mean more to you?
LH: Well, as I just mentioned, every year your goal is to beat everyone, of course, and the more of a fight you have, the more satisfying it is when you are victorious, so we’re fully up for a challenge and for a fight. So, that’s what I prepare for. I think it’s not a bad thing. I can’t remember the last time we had three years and then a rule change – but I think they should probably shorten that, maybe, and do more changes. Because there can often be dominance for a certain team and it’s hard to catch up. There’s a limit to how much development you can do through a year, and the top teams can generally develop at a similar pace. If you’ve got a gap already at the beginning it’s hard to squish that gap being that there are rules in terms of how much investment and time you can put into developing your cars. Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up. I’ve never seen the fans so excited about the season as they are this season, being how that it is we don’t know where the cars and the teams are. So, more of these kinds of experiences would, I think, be welcome.
Q: (Shane McInnes – Radio 3AW) Just about the length of the season, we know it’s 20 races this year but new owners have suggested they might like to see it get out to 25 races. Is 25 too many, and do you think 20 is the right amount or even less, going forward?
DR: I think it depends on how they structure it. It’s not too many. NASCAR do 36 or something. It’s a lot but the travel’s a lot less because they’re just in the US. So, I think it depends logistically how they do it. It’s all… I don’t know. I like racing. If it means just racing and no testing and less other stuff then… maybe. We spend more days in front of cameras and other things than actually behind the wheel of a racing car. I’d be open to the idea.
SV: I think 25 is too many. I think 20 is enough. We don’t need more. I think anything between 16 and 20 is the right number. Also, thinking of the efforts going in from the team point of view. For us it’s fairly easy, arriving more or less with hand luggage, doing the job and getting back. I think we’re on the better side. For a lot of the team, for the staff, it’s hard work. So, I think we are having enough races.
LH: I think if you asked any member of my team whether they’d want to do more races or less, they’d ask for more. It is definitely tough on the guys that are travelling but they love it. They’re addicted to it. They love motor racing and, of course they love time at home but… I’m like Daniel, I love racing so I’m not opposed to more races but I think they’ve got to change the structure, at least on different weekends. If it’s the same four days for 25 races, oh my God I think that would be too much. If they spice it up and make it more… a period during the season that’s perhaps more exciting than another, I think there’s a lot they can do. As long as they are in countries that have a good following. There’s no point in going to a country… for example Turkey, which was a beautiful place but there was no-one that turned up to a race. But if you go to places where there’s a real great atmosphere then you can create a great event, then I think that would be awesome.
Fernando, any thoughts?
FA: The same. We all love racing I think so more racing will be always welcome – but in a couple of years’ time.
Q: (Phil Duncan – PA) Lewis, how excited are you about the prospect of taking on Seb, a driver that’s won four titles. Obviously, you have three. Do you think this could be the start of a great rivalry that Formula One needs with arguably the two best drivers of their generation going for the title?
LH: Yeah. I’ve not had a lot of battles with Sebastian on track so, of course, would love to have that. I think the fans want to see that but even between all of us. We need this guy [Fernando] to have a good car so he can get up there and fight with us as well – before his time’s up. We got a hint that it’s another couple of years at least, so that’s good. I feel we’re yet to see the best of Fernando. The sport needs that and he deserves to be able to show that. So, yeah, you want to be racing against the best. I think that’s what the fans want to see. That close racing and sheer competitiveness and see the ups and downs of the best doing their best. I’m definitely looking forward to racing with all these guys and I hope there’s lots of close racing.
Q: (Andrew Tate – The Age) Lewis, does part of you wish you were racing the reigning champion for the championship this year.
LH: Not really. When I walked in here I was thinking it was kind of neat because I have a champion here, a champion there and a potential champion here as well.
LH: …so it obviously doesn’t make any difference if the reigning champion’s here or not. At the end of the day every year it’s a brand-new year, a brand-new start, it’s a brand-new challenge and a brand-new championship to win. So, I think we’re all out there to beat each other – but as far as I’m aware you don’t say ‘that guy over there’s the current World Champion, I want to go and beat him’. You just want to beat whoever it is you’re up against.