The conference started out with the common argument of the race weekend: Niki Lauda. The mark he is leaving in Formula 1 is incomparable.
Cyril Abiteboul: “It’s another sad news for the Formula One community. Frankly, I had not a lot of interaction with Niki, but clearly he was one of the role models that form our youth and the reason we are admiring Formula One – for the fantastic animal that you come across in life. He was a model of resilience. He was taking the fighting spirit very, very hard and impressive what he managed to do over his career. Any meeting with him was kind of fun. You never knew what could happen. He will be another person badly missed in Formula One.”
Christian Horner: “It’s a huge loss for Formula One - the whole paddock. Obviously for Mercedes where he was so active as well. I think it was a shock for everyone. Obviously he’s not been in great health for the last pretty much 12 months. He was an iconic person. What he achieved in the sport was phenomenal. Just the most remarkable story. You only have to watch the movie, which I think is a pretty decent representation of actually what happened and the fight back that he had, which obviously happened prior to my really understanding of who he was. When I really came across him, he was working as a commentator, quite an outspoken commentator at that time, and he managed to where all these hats, commentating for RTL, running the Mercedes team as their chairman. He was just a larger than life character, obviously as an Austrian, and us an Austrian team, he spent a lot of time with us, particularly Helmut Marko, a very close friend of his, as they pretty much had grown up together. We’ll certainly miss the breakfast where he would come, pretty much every morning and Helmut and he would be like the two old guys in the Muppet Show, Waldorf and Statler I think it was, and they’d basically be commenting on all aspects of life, none of what I’m going to repeat here, that’s for sure – but his openness, his sense of humour, his ability to say “how did you screw that up?” something “was rubbish” – or complement you when you’d done well. He was a great guy, a great personality and he’ll be very, very sadly missed.”
Claire Williams: “I obviously had the pleasure of knowing Niki through our relationship with Mercedes. I can’t profess to knowing him extremely well but everything that he’s achieved in motorsport is extraordinary and, as Christian said, watching that film really demonstrates exactly the kind of character that he was. Latterly, working with him in the Strategy Group meetings, he was always the voice of reason. When Niki talked, people listened. Personally, we always had a bit of a joke about my single status. I think I probably wouldn’t have got married as quickly as I have if Niki wasn’t pressuring my husband into proposing – so that will always be a nice memory for me. The sport has lost an icon, hasn’t it. Our thoughts go out to his family.”
Zak Brown: “Yes, I echo what everyone has said before me. He was an absolute legend of the sport. A loss for all of us. Never met anyone who didn’t like Niki. He was a real likeable guy, a real racer, had a strong opinion and when you look at what he came back from , that’s a real inspiration. I think not many would have been as brave as he was – not only to come back, but to go on, win World Championships. He won his last World Championship with McLaren. So, a lot of people in our factory, Mansour Ojjeh, one of our owners, were was super-close to Niki, so it feels like we lost a member of our family and, of course, the whole racing community has. Just wish his family the best and just grateful to have the fond memories here in Formula One forever.”
Andrew Green: “Unfortunately I never had the honour to work with Niki. He was the background to my youth when I was watching Formula One. He was a big part of it. Some very big images from back then, and part of why I got into the sport. What he did from then until now is just incredible. He’s a real icon and will be sorely missed. “
The questions then came back to the action on track.
Christian Horner can be quite happy with how the season is going for his team, after a big change from Renault to Honda. The Austrian team already collected two podium finishes with Max Verstappen and obviously both the team and the Dutch man are looking for an opportunity to do something big here in Monaco.
“Having introduced some upgrades in Barcelona, you ought to try to optimise those and Monte Carlo has always represented a track that we’ve performed well at.” Said Horner. “We’ve had an encouraging first practice but I think having seen Mercedes’ performance, particularly in the slow speed sector of Barcelona, they are absolutely the stand-out favourites for this event, so if we can get anywhere near them, and put a little bit of pressure on that, that would certainly be our target going in to the weekend.”
“Max’s track record here has been a tricky one and I think particularly last year, obviously, was a tough weekend for him.” He said, speaking about Verstappen. “We had promising pace in the first session. I think Mercedes is a mighty machine this year but Max has been in the form of his life, he’s driving incredibly well and it probably does represent our best chance since the beginning of the year to at least get close to them and hopefully put them under a little bit of pressure. Yeah, hopefully we can build on the first session and through the rest of the weekend.”
Verstappen has showed another side of himself after the last Monaco GP.
“I think really if you wind the clock back 12 months it was probably the lowest weekend, last year, of his career, having a car capable of winning and crashing in FP3 and not being able to take part in qualifying. That was very tough for him and I think he went away from that race and he reflected hard on it. Since Montreal last year he’s really just stepped things up a gear and he’s been a phenomenal force whenever he’s been in the car. The way he started this season has been outstanding. He’s overachieved in certain aspects and I think he’s got that roundedness of maturity and is very much leading the team development-wise. I think he’s enjoying and relishing that role as well, so yeah, if you compare Max Verstappen May 23, 2019 to the equivalent time last year he’s evolved a tremendous amount and I think that’s again the benefit of experience as well.”
On the other side, Cyril Abiteboul is currently working with the last Monaco GP winner, Daniel Ricciardo. The situation is quite different for the Australian, compared to his last season’s performance.
“You can even say that it’s not the season start that we wanted, that we were ambitioning working for and advertised.” Said Renault Team Principal. “It takes clearly a reaction from all of us. In my opinion obviously there has been a collection of issues, not excuse, but issues over the first five races that do not reflect the ambition, the level of our drivers, the level of the team. So it’s up to us to react and come up with clear answers to the different issues. We hope to see those answers starting to kick off with this weekend. Indeed, we have last year’s grand prix winner. It just creates another obligation to come up with the best possible car at this point of our journey.”
Claire Williams is still facing hard times with her team and Monaco will be a challenging race weekend.
“It wasn't the start to the season that we envisaged – but I think we anticipated what was coming. Yeah, I definitely feel that we can see some light at the end of the tunnel now and I think probably just from the time sheets and the last race in Barcelona, we demonstrated that we are closing that gap. It may be slow but we all know that it takes time to bring performance to your car. There’s definitely a lot of good work going on back at the factory that people may not necessarily be seeing yet. The aero team are doing a great job finding performance in the tunnel and we’re going to be bringing that to races over the coming weeks and months with a package coming mid-way through the season that we will hope will bring some significant performance to us. Yes, there are definitely signs of improvement. I think there’s a certain positivity in the team at the moment. Morale is still pretty good, and that’s all we can ask of everyone: just fighting hard, not giving up and keep on brining performance to the car.”
Lastly, Zak Brown answered about the situation with Fernando Alonso, who, once again, trusted the Woking team, but ended up excluded from the Indy 500.
“Our relationship with Fernando has never been stronger. He was obviously very disappointed. We let him down, he deserved to be in the race, he was an absolute star as he always has been when he’s raced with us, and my personal relationship in working with him. What he does post-Le Mans is up to Fernando. We have a contract with him for some McLaren activities. I think when you come off an emotional weekend like that you want to take some time to reflect and see what he wants to do in the future and if that aligns with some of McLaren’s activities then that would be great but just like he’s been driving with Toyota, I think he’s a bit undecided on what he wants to do yet so we will pick up those conversations when I see him in Le Mans.”
He also spoke about the situation with McLaren in Formula 1.
“It’s early in the season and the midfield is so tight, I think the swing can swing at any one race. We’re pleased that we’re sitting forth in the Championship. We think that’s realistically, on our road to recovery, about as much as we’re going to be able to realistically achieve. So we will fight hard to retain that position, and those behind us are going to fight hard, of course, to knock us out of fourth, and we’ve got a long way to go, so I think anything can happen – but I’m really pleased with all the effort everyone at McLaren has put together. We had a better winter testing, and certainly have built a better race car. Drivers are doing an excellent job, we’re quick on pit stops now, so you can feel the team’s coming together. We have Andreas Seidl now and James Key who’ve joined, so I feel I’ve got all the right players on the field, so to speak and now we just need to put our head down and execute.”