TG: Firstly, congratulations on the OBE. So Jenson vs Lewis. Is that a real issue or is just media hype?
EJ: I don’t think it’s hype and it certainly wasn’t hype last year. McLaren has traditionally been seen as Lewis’ home and when Jenson turned up, most people were surprised. And he came in and he beat him. People shouldn’t be surprised at what happened this year in the first race. Jenson outdragged him into the first corner. There’s probably an argument, and this is only my view, that maybe on a given lap, Lewis may have that little fraction. In terms of race balance, race style, it’s more or less even and it depends, as we’ve seen in Australia, on the run to the first corner, who gets their first. If Jenson’s able to get there, he’s able to look after his tyres, he controls things well. From that point of view, it’s a wide open game. Who’ll win it this year? I have absolutely no idea.
TG: Were you disappointed with Lewis in Australia when he looked so upset after the race, considering you’d tipped him for big things, and maybe even the championship this year?
EJ: He’s under a lot of pressure, he was obviously bitterly disappointed. Most people would be absolutely, massively overjoyed to be on the podium in any race. And the world outside can’t understand why Lewis wasn’t up there celebrating a great team performance, a great sponsors’ performance. The car is bloody good. Now he could have had a bad day, we don’t know what goes on. These guys are so under the focus of the cameras, it becomes a real problem for them. It’s just a pity, because his whole demeanour didn’t exude happiness and that came across on the telly. But he certainly rectified that in Malaysia, I thought he seemed to be in a better space.
TG: You gave Schumacher his first drive in F1, back in Belgium in 1991. Do you think that this could be the year where we see a proper return to form for him?
EJ: The car is definitely a lot better, there’s no doubt about that. You can’t be on the first two rows of a grand prix in qualifying if your car doesn’t have pace, because that’s where you get the real, real hardcore, squeezing the last ounce out of the car. And he’s put the gun to Rosberg’s head really. Where’s Rosberg at the moment? Is the car more in keeping with the way Michael likes? Is it designed to suit him? We don’t know, but we’ll find out. And they’ve had a few scary loophole issues with whether this wing was legal or not. It’s been pronounced legal now, so I think it will be OK. I think Mercedes will have a good year.
TG: Do you think it’s sensible for the whole Formula 1 circus to travel to Bahrain, given the political problems there at the moment?
Well if you’ve got twenty people in a room, you’re going to have ten people saying one thing and ten people saying another. I grew up in the era when sport was kept out of the greater political punchbowl. Bahrain is a race that’s going to happen. We’ve all been treated unbelievably well when we’ve gone there before. I’ve not seen any problem. Of course I’ve read what’s been said in the reports. But we’re assured by our president, who has been there and sent delegates there, that everything is absolutely in top case. We’ve had delegations from Bahrain who’ve come to the grand prix and talked to the media and the teams about any issues they may have. If there’s a political agenda, I’m not aware of it. If it wasn’t right, the teams would not go. They’re very mindful people, they’ve got strong human views. If we’re going to Bahrain and it’s on the calendar and the FIA say it’s safe to do so, the British government say it’s OK to do so, then it will happen.
TG: Kimi’s back this year – does that prospect excite you?
EJ: Yeah. I mean, I was hugely surprised, because he’s adapted almost immediately, bearing in mind that there’s no testing. He’s had to jump out of a rally car and go straight into this. But I think he will have been surprised by the speed of Grosjean. I’ve been surprised by the speed of Grosjean. I couldn’t quite get my head around where it was coming from. He got third on the grid in Australia and I thought ‘This is crackers’. But he’s going to have to transfer some of the speed that he has in qualifying into the race. If I was there, I’d pull him aside and say [punching his hand emphatically] ‘Look, Romain, you have to bring that car home. The team needs the points. Yes, it’s fantastic to qualify third and be up there on the first couple of rows. But we need you to think of a slightly different strategy. There are no points for Saturday, so capitalise on the Sunday.’ And that’s mind over matter. He’s probably so anxious to show what speed he has, because he didn’t appear to have that the last time he was in Formula 1. So it’s a big surprise for him. I was hugely surprised, so well done to Lotus for picking those two drivers.
TG: Both Jarno Trulli and Rubens Barrichello are out for this year. Both of them drove for you – are you sad that they’re gone?
EJ: Well, they’re my old boys. Rubens had four years with me, they’re both Grand Prix winners. I just feel in many respects that you can’t be too nostalgic. When you see the new guys they’ve been replaced with, you’ve got Maldonado, you’ve got Perez, you’ve got Grosjean back, then there’s Jean-Eric Vergne – they look amazing! We’ve still yet to study [Charles] Pic to see what’s happening at Marussia, but you have to say, as far as I’m concerned, this is a great move with the new drivers coming in. And I’m all for giving new drivers a chance. Rubens has had his chance, he’s done more races than anyone else, Jarno was obviously happy to do a deal to leave. He’s got his vineyards, he’s got other activities, he’s won his grand prix in Monaco, had his day of glory, it’s probably time to make way for other people. It is time! You might ask me about Michael Schumacher. Michael Schumacher’s return was great for the sport and there are a lot of people talking about him. But is it right for a 40-odd year-old driver to still race in F1? Well if they’re fit enough and they’re fast enough, then sure, let them. But I’m also mindful of making sure that there is a route for young drivers to come through.
TG: Then would you like to see a partnership like the two Nicos, Hulkenberg and Rosberg, at Mercedes, rather than Rosberg with Schumacher?
EJ: I think Rosberg has got his own pressures this year. Michael has re-emerged and it will be a titanic battle between those two. I’m actually relishing the thought of [the battle between Force India’s] Di Resta and Hulkenberg, because they look great and they’ll push themselves like crazy.
TG: So does 2012 look like a good year to you?
EJ: Well, the last number of years have been unbelievable and this year’s going to be no exception. Probably even better, because I think that last year Vettel ran away with it. That won’t happen this year.
Words: Greg Stuart