Sam Philip sits down with Sky’s new man to discuss Vettel’s temper, Ferrari’s F1 woes, and racing for Nissan with his son at this year’s Le Mans…
TG: So Martin – for you, what’s been the biggest surprise of the F1 season so far?
MB: Red Bull’s performance – or lack of – compared to the past two years. But when you look at how the regulations have changed, it’s almost like they were designed to slow the Red Bulls down. Doubling the torsional stiffness of the front wings – the way Red Bull were ‘flying’ their car down the track with lots of rake, nose close to the ground, exhausts helping to sort the high rear ride height out, it’s all been taken away from them.
The rest of it is pretty much as it was shaping up in pre-season testing. It’s very close at the front, and the midfield’s strong enough to steal some great results, just as we saw with Perez in Kuala Lumpur. The negative surprise is that the Ferrari’s a bit… grim. That, and the pace of the Mercedes in the race. The positive surprise is the midfield – the Sauber, Toro Rosso, Force India, Williams…
How long before we see Perez in a Ferrari?
I think we have to assume that Massa won’t be there [at Ferrari] in 2013. Perez has got a great chance – there are a lot of good kids out there though. There’s a bit of a changing of the guard. We’ve lost Rubens, I don’t know where Michael Schumacher is at, but there’s a hundred kids totally prepared – mentally, physically, nutritionally, technically – to step into an F1 car. Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean, those guys can step straight up to the plate.
Who’s going to do well at the Chinese Grand Prix?
Well, you’ve got that big back straight, which should suit the Mercedes very well. There’s often changeable weather conditions, so I think it’s entirely unpredictable again. But the team that looks like it’s got the best package, weekend by weekend, is McLaren. They look like they’re best sorted.
You can’t underestimate that Lotus. Raikkonen could, and should, have been on pole in Sepang, and talking to the Lotus boys, they say they just put it on the track and make very few changes. It’s one of those cars that’s clearly quite benign aerodynamically and well-balanced. That means it’s going to work well in all conditions and on all the tracks.
Which race are you most looking forward to this year?
I love Monaco as a race to commentate on. And the British Grand Prix. I’ve been to more than half the Grand Prix races in history, I was working out the other day. I enjoy them all, but particularly Monaco, Silverstone and Spa. I could leave Korea, I could leave China…
Of the current F1 grid, who would be your perfect two-driver team?
I would have Vettel and Alonso. Or Vettel and Hamilton. We’ve tried Hamilton and Alonso [at McLaren in 2007], it doesn’t work.
Did you think Vettel was right to criticise back markers after Sepang?
No, that’s just an angry man who hasn’t got a front-running car at the moment. I thought it looked a bit clumsy. Vettel didn’t leave enough room. We saw it in the Indian Grand Prix last year as well, when Karthikeyan half-heartedly yields – you’ve either got to stay on the racing line and go for it, then let them [the faster cars] through on the way out, or you yield completely. Karthikeyan kind of gets out the way, and that’s why they keep running into him. He’s got to be more decisive in what he does. I can see why they’re frustrated with him. But Vettel was a bit clumsy.
Is the problem that the teams at the back are too slow?
They always have been. Somebody’s got to be at the front, somebody’s got to be at the back. The HRT is particularly poor at the moment, and it confuses me why in year three it’s worse than it was in year one. The rest of them are OK, and they’ve got pro drivers in them. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, but I thought it was a bit rich of Vettel to call him [Karthikeyan] an idiot. He’s just frustrated.
So – 22 years after winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, you’re heading back this year in a Nissan LMP2 car with your son Alex racing alongside you. What sort of result are you hoping for?
It’s an unexpected privilege and pleasure for me to be going back to Le Mans. You’ve got to take Le Mans very seriously because it’s super-fast and it’s hard racing. The cars are very fast. We’re in the second category but these LMP2 cars are quicker than a lot of the Le Mans cars I drove. You’ve got Minassian, Sarrazin, Buemi, a lot of good kids in that category. If we could get on the podium or win the LMP2 class, I’d be ecstatic.
How are you getting fit?
I’ve lost three kilos, I’m in good nick. I was fast in the test. I’m jumping in a Radical when I can. I’m in the gym at Grands Prix with Coulthard every morning I get the chance.
How are you getting ready for the 3am stint?
I’ll just put the kids in the car. If it’s dark or wet, I’m not driving it. But really, it’s not a problem. You go faster at night at Le Mans than in the day. My eyesight’s good, but I think it’s the one area my age will show – you can’t laser that back in. But Le Mans has a very short night – just four, four and a half hours of darkness.
Who’s going to be quicker – you or Alex?
Alex is going to be quicker, thank goodness. If he wasn’t, he’d be getting fired. He’s 30 years younger than me, he’s fitter and brighter. But I’m quick enough that he has to keep checking my times.
You’ll be on track at Le Mans with the Nissan DeltaWing car. What do you make of it?
My concern is that it’ll be too fast. It’s got low drag, I think it’ll be a real nuisance for us, because it’ll be faster in different places. The people who put that together are smart people – I heard it’s pulling over three lateral g already. It’s not allowed to win anything [the DeltaWing is racing in its own category] but I bet you it’ll be surprisingly quick. It’s going to be a bloody nuisance. It’ll be the same speed as us but in different places.
I think it’s a very bold adventure, and I’m looking forward to seeing it out on track. It’s fascinating. It gets attention and media outside of petrolheads, and that’s good for motorsports. Tell me that every single fan that’s at Le Mans this year won’t be watching its progress very closely, because it’s so unusual. People need to break out of their mental moulds and understand that things move on.
Finally, who’s your money on for the F1 drivers’ title this year?
I could see Hamilton winning the title this year. But I’m not a betting man. I’ve been around this business too long to waste good money betting on racing drivers. That’s a wild guess, it could be anyone. Who would have thought Fernando Alonso would be leading the championship after two races? We thought they were going to get thrashed by the midfield… which, to an extent, if it wasn’t for Alonso, they would be. I sense McLaren have got a really good package, and Lewis is hungry to get back on the championship trail.