McLaren Racing managing director Jonathan Neale has quipped that he and his colleagues 'don't expect' McLaren-Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button 'to always be gentlemanly on the circuit' – even if such competitive tensions do 'leave us wincing on the pit wall sometimes...'
Of all the top team internecine relationships in F1 2010 – Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa at Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing and Hamilton and Button at McLaren – it was the latter that survived intact as the others, punctuated by the controversies of Shanghai, Istanbul, Silverstone and Hockenheim, somewhat disintegrated and in Vettel and Webber's case, deteriorated into mutual antipathy.
Neale admits that it is a nice position for the Woking-based outfit to be in – and a 'mighty relief' in the wake of the rather less harmonious Hamilton/Alonso and Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost partnerships in previous years – as the all-British duo form what he describes as a 'cohesive' bond and work well together to improve the car.
“They are both very competitive, and we don't expect them to always be gentlemanly on the circuit,” he reflected, speaking during a special pre-season media day at the McLaren Technology Centre. “They are out there to race each other, and I don't think they will give much quarter to each other. That leaves us wincing on the pit wall sometimes, as happened several times last year – but it's what we pay them for.”
The Englishman added that neither driver has thus far found the more complicated cockpit ergonomics in 2011 to be too much of an issue – with all the extra buttons to press during qualifying and races – but one area that some muse could lead to a degree of dissension inside the McLaren camp is the new Pirelli tyres, with the swift degradation of the 'super-softs' likely to play very much into Button's hands but potentially set to disadvantage Hamilton, due to the 2008 F1 World Champion's more aggressive style behind the wheel.
“With the super-soft, if you don't nail that first lap, that's it,” Neale conceded, revealing that McLaren is still working on finding the ideal set-up with the two very different Pirelli compounds. “They're much more like the old 'qualifying tyres'.
“If you are sitting there at the front of the grid on the super-soft tyres, with someone behind you on the harder tyres that will last 15 laps longer, you are going to drop straight back into traffic amongst the midfield and backmarkers [after pitting]. Pirelli have been very open with regard to working with the teams to find the kind of solutions that the FIA has asked for, and I think it's going to make for very interesting racing for spectators.”
As to general testing, the 48-year-old confessed that early reliability 'gremlins' and mechanical woes at the rear of the new MP4-26 had made things 'a bit torturous', but he underlined that the most recent outing in Barcelona had yielded much more positive feedback about McLaren's new challenger from its two drivers – even if he acknowledges that the opposition is looking extremely sharp, too.
“Inevitably, when bringing a new car to a circuit for the first time, you haven't got three sets of spares lined up,” Neale opined, alluding to the embarrassing lack of running for Hamilton on day three at Jerez earlier this month. “The testing ban has made everybody more disciplined about how we need to use winter testing, though – and if there's a circuit anywhere that's going to test your car for stability and aerodynamics, it's Barcelona, and the test there went much better.
“We've had a really good look over all the other cars. Certainly, the early reliability of the Ferrari looks very good – they're able to pound round and set consistent lap times – and I think we can predict a phenomenal rate of upgrades from Red Bull. Renault's exhaust is an interesting feature – we evaluated that position, and it's interesting that they have picked that option – and then there's Williams' rear end, too. We've all been trying to figure out how that comes together and works...”