Mercedes’ Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin attended the Japanese Grand Prix Friday Press Conference. Here is the full transcript.
Q: Shov, coming to you now. Thank you for waiting. Let’s throw it back to Sunday, first of all, a very disappointing ending to that race for George, how can you and the team help him move on?
Andrew SHOVLIN: Well, I mean, he was obviously very upset himself about that. He was more gutted than anyone. And the team has been really good at just sort-of working with him, giving him a day to just go off and clear his head. But he’s come back here very much business-as-usual. But you know, the team will make mistakes from time to time, the drivers do. I don’t think he’ll do that one again. And as much as it was unfortunate to lose some points there, he put himself in a position where he could challenge for the win. And it was nice to see that. And that was actually a great feeling for the team, even if it didn’t last as long as we’d have liked. But those laps where you really felt like you were fighting for a win again.
Q: And in terms of car performance in Singapore, is it fair to say that you had the fastest car on Sunday?
AS: It’s difficult, because so much of the race, everyone was held up, there were different tyre strategies. I think we had a car that was close enough to fight for a win. And you know, that’s what you can be confident of. I think if it hadn’t been for Norris being able to catch that DRS, then we probably would have done it. And it was nice to see the strategy team, as well, taking some bold choices in terms of the strategy. But where we fell, relative to McLaren to Ferrari, that all felt pretty normal to be honest. The big difference was Red Bull weren’t there, and normally they are. If you look at FP1 today, you’d say they’re back to where they should be.
Q: Can I ask you briefly about Red Bull in Singapore, in that you’ve been there as well, at the Marina Bay circuit, back in 2015. You were dominating the season, but that was an outlier that weekend. What is it about that racetrack that makes it so difficult and so unpredictable?
AS: The problem that we had was actually quite specific to the old set of regulations and how the car was working aerodynamically. It’s very bad for overheating, it’s a street track, it’s quite bumpy. If the drivers haven’t got confidence, that will always rob quite a lot of lap time off them. And in particular, it’s really hard to keep your rear tyres under control because of all those traction zones. So, it’s quite a nuanced circuit. But you know, we’ve had one really, really difficult year there, it was very good for learning and probably you’d say Red Bull will find the same: that they’ll get to the bottom of what went wrong, and it won’t be a mistake that’ll happen again.
Q: Now, Lewis has said that this year’s car is one of the hardest he’s ever driven to get into the right working window, do you fully understand it now?
AS: Well, I mean, we were doing a lot of work to try and solve some of the problems on this car, make sure that we don’t have them next year. We have moved it forward, the car we had previously, in 2022, that tended to be an awfully long way off in qualifying, it was generally racing a bit better. The performance was very, very track specific. So, some areas we have improved. The big issues, we’re just not quick enough. So, we need to find a good chunk of performance, to challenge Red Bull in particular. But the other thing is the field is now super close. So, you look at some of the gaps we had 12 months ago, and you can have a decent qualifying position, you might be fourth or fifth on the grid but you were eight, nine tenths off. Now, if you do that, you end up getting bumped in Q1 or Q2. So there’s lots for us to work on and certainly some of the work will be about making sure we can give the drivers the confidence in the car that they’re lacking at the moment. And that’s a big area. We’ve got some interesting projects that hopefully they’ll come off.
Q: Shov, looking at this weekend, you’ve said it looks like Red Bull are back. But how is your pace relative to Ferrari, relative to McLaren?
AS: Well, on the basis of FP1, we’re glad it’s not a sprint race, because we’ve got a bit of work to do! But you know, we haven’t changed the car coming here. The circuit’s unique, but it’s not a total outlier. It’s not like Monaco or somewhere. So, logic tells you we can probably chip away at it, try and get it in a better window. We just haven’t landed with a great balance here. And it’s also a little bit confusing hopping around with a new tyre compound. But fundamentally, a bit of work to do on the set-up, we probably get that, half the tracks. We land at, we’re having to adapt the car to get it to work. And again, that ties in with what Lewis was saying. It’s not an easy car to just land on track, and it does everything you want it to: you do need to do a lot of fine-tuning. But our record for doing that has been pretty decent over the year. So, we’ll do the work we normally do. We’ve got the simulator team back in Brackley and they’ll be getting that ready to roll and hopefully we’ll make some progress for the next session.
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QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Luke Smith – The Athletic) Andrew, a question for you about George. Obviously, he’s worked with Mercedes for a very long time, now. What are some of your earliest memories and impressions of George when he first joined the team as a young driver? And have you seen those characteristics grow to now being a grand prix winner for the team?
AS: Well, I think when we first ran him in an F1 car, that was one of the post-season Abu Dhabi tests. And obviously, whatever you come from, it’s a big jump. He’d come from F3 into that, and just in terms of throttle control, ability to look after the tyres, understanding what’s important, consistency, the approach to starting and then just chipping away at it without, you know, taking risks without making mistakes, you can normally see the good ones pretty early on. So, there was no doubt there. But, for us, the bit where you realised he was pretty impressive was when we jumped him in when Lewis had COVID. Great job, a lot to take on, very little time to adapt to the team, the car. And you know, he’s continuing to improve and get stronger.
Q: (Jon Noble – Motorsport.com) Over the past two years of this rules era, when the word concept has emerged, it’s always been linked with the sidepods and there being this tenuous link between the two. But from your perspective, when you talk about concept, what’s your view of what a car concept is? And what are the initial considerations you have when you’re talking about what you want a car to be?
AS: Well, for us, we view it in a bit more complicated way than just what do the sidepods look like. And what the sidepods look like interacts very heavily with what’s going on with the floor. And the floor is the thing that’s generating most of the downforce. So, you know, you use the word like we’re going down a different [path], or exploring a different concept, but, generally, that, for the teams, will mean that there are changes right underneath the car and it’s about putting the bits together above that are going to be conditioning the flow. So that’s one element. But then the other thing, with a new set of regulations, is working out where you want to target the downforce. Where are you wanting to chase in terms of efficiency or drag levels? And a lot of the work we do when we’re talking about going off on a different development route, is actually saying, where do we think the real value is? And when your resources are so limited, you need to be very careful about where you’re searching for performance, because it’s got to be fruitful, because you’ve got so little tunnel time, the cost cap is making things difficult… You don’t want to be exploring in barren lands, basically.
Q: (Scott Mitchell-Malm – The Race) A question to Andrew, just to talk about Lewis in a bit more detail with this car. He has talked about having ups and downs in qualifying. Before the summer break he was on that really good run relative to George – I think it was six in seven that he qualified him. Since the summer break, he’s sounded a bit unhappy. Is that just part of how difficult the car is to get in a sweet spot? Or is there something specific Lewis struggles with? And why does he turn around so effectively on Sundays, because his points haul and podium rate this season has been very impressive.
AS: Well, he yeah, as you say, he’s always performed on a Sunday. And that’s been brilliant, because he’s always been able to bring home decent points for us. The car is a bit fiddly at times. If you don’t get it right in the window, you can end up struggling through the session. The other thing that makes it difficult is that it is so hard to get through Q1, Q2 these days. And you know, a few years ago, we would just do one lap, middle of the session, it would put you completely safe. Sometimes we’d go through two sessions on one set of tires. And if you don’t get the right balance, if you get a bit of traffic, if you can’t do the right out lap, all of those things really cost you. So it’s a combination of things. But you know, the race pace has been good. It says that the car is broadly where you need it to be, but understanding the tyres when you’re under pressure, when you’ve got to make sure that you do get the lap in the first session, it is difficult and that certainly makes it a challenge for any driver who’s not completely comfortable when they roll out in Q1.
Q: (Adam Cooper – Motorsports.com) I know it’s still a few weeks away, but I can ask for your thoughts on Las Vegas, what kind of track it is from the early sims you’ve done, what kind of challenges it presents, especially with regard to tyre temperature, because people are saying it might be five degrees towards the end of the race?
AS: Yeah, I think it’ll just depend on exactly how cold it is. Because if the track is down in single figures, that’s often a region where you go winter testing, you do a run, it’s very difficult for the tyres to either get them switched on, or there may be graining and things. And then sometimes you just wait until it warms up a bit. So actually going to have to sort of race and qualify in those conditions, it will be interesting, but you just try and identify the risks with the new circuit, work out what your contingencies will be, whether you need any sort of specific car spec to deal with that, and we’re going through those at the moment. But as I said, if it’s at the very cold end of predictions, it’s difficult to know how they are going to work.