Zak BROWN (McLaren), Toto WOLFF (Mercedes), James VOWLES (Williams), Frédéric VASSEUR (Ferrari)
Q: It’s been a very unfortunate start to the on-track proceedings. Fred, perhaps we could start with you. What has Carlos Sainz said to you since FP1 – and have you had a chance to look at the car yet?
Frédéric VASSEUR: What he said, I think it was on the air, that I hit something on track and he didn’t know exactly what it was. The situation is that we damaged completely the monocoque, the engine, the battery and I think it’s just unacceptable.
Q: Well let’s look bigger picture…
FV: This one is a good one, I don’t need to have a bigger picture than this one.
Q: OK, but Fred, I did just want to ask you about this event, in terms of what it means for Ferrari, if we could just talk about the Las Vegas Grand Prix. How big it is. Talk to me about the activations that Ferrari are doing here.
FV: Yeah guys, I’m not sure that is the topic for me today. We had a very tough FP1. This will cost us a fortune. We fucked-up the session for Carlos. We won’t be part of the FP2 for sure. We have to change the chassis out of the car, to set-up the car. OK, the show is the show and everything is going well but I think it’s just unacceptable for the F1 today.
[off-mic from Toto]
FV: You would be upset in my situation.
Q: Fred, this is the last chance we’re going to get to speak to you in the FIA press conference…
FV: At least good news!
Q: …I thought you might say that. Fred, let’s look at 2023 as a whole. OK? Your first year as team principal of Ferrari.
Toto WOLFF: You’re putting yourself in more trouble, I have known him for 20 years…
Q: OK, we’ll come back to you Fred. Zak, can we talk to you, maybe, about the bigger picture. McLaren has a truly global perspective. You’ve got teams in series all around the world. Tell us how significant Las Vegas is for you and your team.
Zak BROWN: It’s a huge event. It’s been a couple of years of build-up for Formula 1. Probably going to be one of the most watched grands prix in the history of the sport. Unfortunate, obviously, the way we’ve kicked things off but hopefully we’ll get things rectified here shortly. Feel terrible for Fred and I think another car as well had some significant damage. But yeah, putting that aside, we have a tremendous amount of corporate partners out here, lots of fans, lots of attention on this sport as a whole and I think it’s Liberty taking the sport to yet another level – so hopefully we get the show on the road here shortly.
Q: And Zak, I’d like to take you back to the whole of 2023. You look locked into P4 in the Constructors’ Championship now. Given where you were at pre-season testing, how do you sum-up the year?
ZB: Well, I wouldn’t say we’re locked into P4. We’re only 21 points ahead and, especially when you get into a street race, some crazy things can happen – but we’re in a good spot, I should say. That was the goal. I didn’t think we’d quite get there by being the ninth or tenth quickest team at the start of the year and then we’ve been kind of bouncing around between second, third, fourth quickest team, the second half of the year. It’s been an awesome effort by Andrea Stella and the entire team. The upgrades have been fantastic. Drivers are doing a great job, we’ve got great power coming out of our Mercedes power unit, so it’s been a wild ride and I’m glad we’re ending with the momentum that we have now created – because hopefully that will carry us forward through the winter and get started with a much stronger year in 2024 than we were in 2023.
Q: Well, you’ve made a lot of hires over the last 12 months. Does McLaren now have everything it needs to win.
ZB: We have everything we need but we need a little bit more time. The upgrades were not done with some of our latest technology. We’re now in our wind tunnel, we have our new simulator, our new manufacturing unit, so that’s quite exciting for us because we haven’t yet benefitted from those. We’ve got great people back at McLaren but we do have a couple of big hires that start in early January that I think will be additive – but, of course, our 2024 car is already started. So, I think we’ll have everything in place come January but not everything… ‘24’s already started, so I think it’ll be ’25 before we’ve fully maximised everything. I feel good about the ’24 season – but we need to close-out ’23 strongly first.
Q: Toto, if we could come to you now. Tell us about Vegas and your experiences of the event.
TW: Well, it’s big. For me it’s a first, in Vegas. I must really say that the job that Liberty has done is phenomenal, considering that this was over two years. I think this was a construction site here a year ago. And then to pull that off, you really need to take your hat off. And it’s going to become a fixture, and I think an important fixture for the sport.
Q: And in terms of performance, do you think the W14 is going to be more competitive here than it was last time out in Brazil?
TW: We didn’t have the tyres… so… you can’t say Tom. We didn’t have a proper lap, the tyres were never in the window and… too early.
Q: But do you understand why you had the problems last time out?
TW: We do, yeah. We were a little bit… we got it wrong with some of the tuning we did on the car, and, with a Sprint race weekend… you can’t change that. If we’d had an FP2 session it would have been so obvious that we were in the wrong spot – but this is how it goes. Same for everybody and we got that wrong.
Q: And when you reflect on 2023 Toto. I mean, you look like you’re going to have a better finish in the Constructors’ Championship than you did last year. Do you feel it’s been a better season in terms of execution for the team?
TW: Well, second is not a given. Ferrari is just 20 points or so behind us and, like Zak said, this is a street circuit, many things can happen and I think it’s between the two of us, you see who can score more points here and in Abu Dhabi. But in any case, if we look back in ten years, and we look at the score and say we finished second in the World Championship after winning eight years and then a third, you would say that is respectable – but if there is one guy that wins all of the other races, you can’t say that any more. We just need to do a better job to be competitive. The season was a rollercoaster, up and down. Some very promising races, like in Austin and Mexico, which we could have won – but could have is not enough. And then Brazil. So, I hope we can end it on a more positive note. Here the unknown and then Abu Dhabi.
Q: James, first of all, many congratulations on the birth of your daughter. Mum and babe doing OK?
James VOWLES: Yeah, thank you for asking. Both are absolutely fine. I don’t think either one is sleeping but they’re both home and healthy, which is the main thing.
Q: Good. Give us your thoughts on the whole Las Vegas experience so far.
JV: I think, first and foremost, it’s enormous for the sport. As Toto said, this is a private entity, Liberty, that have done this incredible surround that we have here, and it is top class, it is, I would say really, a jewel in the crown that is the calendar. And it’s brilliant to be really represented across all elements of the United States. For example, we’re activating a very large pop-up store and a number of other items. You can see the amount of teams that have done liveries just in celebration of how important this event is. And Liberty have done a great job with it. Yes, we have problems, and I’m… what happened in FP1 is incredibly disappointing. I’m incredibly sorry for both Ferrari and Alpine that have suffered damage as a result of it. If it had been us, I think that would have affected the Championship quite significantly. But we will get on top of it and we will get the show back on the road as a result of where we are and how important this is.
Q: And, of course, it was Williams back in Baku in 2019, wasn’t it?
JV: That’s exactly what we thought about immediately this happens. We’ve been on the receiving end of it and it’s incredibly painful both in financial damage and in loss of time on track. It’ll take a long time to get that repaired.
Q: And when you look at 2023 James, you took over a team that was tenth in the Constructors' Championship last year. You’re currently seventh. Is that the trajectory that you were hoping for when you joined?
JV: I think it’s better than what I was hoping for but you have to remember I’m sitting on a sofa alongside people where… we were fighting McLaren in Bahrain and they’re fighting for podiums and wins. We have the top four in the Championship all lined-up next to me and that’s the aspiration. To get somewhere there. And the reality behind it is that there are teams this year, McLaren’s one of them, AlphaTauri is another one of them, that are putting huge performance on the car and starting to fight with the giants. Our aspirations are very clearly to keep moving forward in the way that we have. Now, Williams has gone from not scoring points to, since the Summer break, we’ve been scoring at near enough most events – Or have the ability to score, so that's a very different circumstance to where we were 12 months ago. But, as I said, our aspiration is to keep moving up the grid, beyond where we are now. And that’s going to take a lot more effort from where we are.
Q: James, how have you found the experience of being Team Principal? What's been the biggest lesson learned this year?
JV: I’ve had the fortune… It's not because Toto and Fred and Zak are sat here, but I've had the fortune of having people around me that have helped me on this journey and I learned a lot of things off Toto. Not all of them used, because some of them are pretty rubbish, to be honest. But I learned a lot of things off Toto on this journey. No, I mean, joking aside, Toto really put me under his wing and taught me a lot of things that I had to know and a lot of holes and gaps I still have today. And I have a lot of catching up to do relative to my peers that are experienced in doing this. It's an environment where hopefully I'm showing the world that I've earned this place and deserve this place. But I have a tremendous amount to do going forward in order to make sure that we show that Williams is really a team that is a serious team wanting to go back to the front. And it's never the work of one person. It just doesn't work that way. It's the work of 1,000 people or 800 people behind the scenes that are doing all the real hard graft that brings you to where you are as an organisation and our job is just to make sure that we're roughly pointing the right way.
Q: (Fillip Cleeren – Motorsport.com) A question to Fred and everybody else. Clearly no expense has been spared to make this event as big and as glamorous as it can be. But then if you look at what happened today, it could have caused an enormous accident apart from the costs incurred. So do you think F1 has its priorities straight or have some corners been cut in terms of the actual on-track product?
FV: You don't have to mix everything. I think that the show is mega and I'm very happy with what Liberty did around the race and I think it's a huge step forward for F1 and we have to separate what is the show and the sporting side. The show is mega. I was in the Paddock Club yesterday when they did the ceremony and it was something that I never saw before, perhaps in Magny Cours in 2008. But no, seriously, I think it was something mega for Formula 1. But it's not because you are doing this that you are, that you don't have to do the job on the sporting side and so on. I think it's two separate things. And I don't want to mix everything and to say that, sorry for the expression, but they did shit on the sporting side because they did the show. It's not true. You can do the show and do a good job on the sporting side. It's two separate things.
ZB: No, I think first of all, anytime you have an incident, first we’ve got to fix it and then look back and go, how did it happen? Whether that's a track issue or a problem you have with your car, whatever the case may be, I think it would be unfair and quick to judge that corners were cut. You know, this has happened before - It happened in Baku, I remember when it happened back in sportscar racing in Montreal many, many years ago. So it's an unfortunate incident. I don't think it's because effort wasn’t put in or corners were cut. It's just somehow they got it wrong. Right now, we just need to focus on fixing it, and then look back and go, how did we get it wrong? And I'm sure it was an engineering-related issue that they'll get solved. But they've spared no expense on the entire event. So, I think they just got it wrong.
JV: My perspective is this has also happened in Monaco, if I remember correctly, a track that had circuits or cars running on it for many, many years. The point is these cars are generating huge amounts of suction underneath now. And the brake that I saw, the picture that I saw, it’s not something that there was a lack of diligence to it, it's an amount of force they weren't expecting. I'm confident we'll get everything sorted but exactly as Zak said, I don't think it's at all cutting corners. I think that there was an intention here to make this incredible show. That's been done. But we just want to make sure we get all the details right go back through and understand what we can do to make sure when we do new events we get this right from here onwards
TW: All three have summarised what I would have said.
(Q: Luke Smith – The Athletic) Fred, are you going to be seeking damages to cover the costs of the damage done to the cars in this session? And for all of you, I appreciate that It's not about cutting corners or anything like that, this is a great spectacle but how embarrassing and damaging is this for Formula 1 and after over half a billion dollars spent on this event, and all this hype, after eight minutes of practice session has been cancelled?
FV: I'm still convinced that the event is mega for the F1. As James said before, this happened in Monaco couple of years ago. I remember Baku 2019. I remember that we had a couple of occasions like this. But again, I was already convinced before FP1 that the event was mega for F1 and I'm still convinced of that and we have to continue in this direction. I remember also at Zandvoort, when they started to have the music into the grandstand, everybody had to copy them the race after, and I think probably we will do a step forward in the right direction, from Vegas. And everybody perhaps won't be at the same standard but we'll go in this direction in terms of show and entertainment and so on. But we have to take care of the sporting side. It's a completely different story. And it's not because you are doing a show that you know what I mean… For sure I'm frustrated. I'm also scared because Carlos hit a metallic part at 320 kph and it could have been much worse.
(Q: Luke Smith – The Athletic) Are you going to be seeking damages?
FV: We have time to discuss about this.
Q: Toto, just can we just get your thoughts on the ramifications of what happened in FP1?
TW: Like Fred said, at the end, this is a mega spectacle, it's going to set a new standard for the sport and that's important. And then we have track action and a drain cover that’s become undone. There was another. I remember Williams 2012. I think we had it in DTM with Bernd Maylander, which nearly exploded the car. It's not new and that can happen. It's a brand new circuit. I saw the picture and it’s a part of the concrete that has broken out, so yeah, it's a shame for the people here but these things can happen.
Q: (Claire Cottingham – Racefans.net) A question for everyone. The drivers yesterday were speaking about how an event like this is costing them a lot of time in terms of their jet lag, because of the timing that we're doing, they're doing a lot of social events and stuff like that. They were also saying on Saturday that they feel that maybe they're doing too much. Do you think the drivers are going to be compromised in a race like this when everyone's expecting so much from them?
ZB: Well, I think it's the same challenge for all the drivers. It's a big sport. It's a huge event. There's a lot of excitement. And a lot of fans want to meet the drivers, a lot of sponsors want to do activations. So it's kind of a luxury challenge if you'd like. So, yeah, it's going to be a lot, a lot of work for all of us. But it's a big event. And, you know, they're all tremendous athletes, so I'm sure they will be just fine.
FV: My two guys stayed on the US side, so for them there is no jet lag. And it's not the first time that they will go to bed after midnight, I think that I'm not too scared about this. And in terms of activation, for sure, we have a lot, but we have to enjoy it. I remember that before the COVID we were looking for this and we were looking for events and we were looking for fans, and we were looking for activations. We have to enjoy this momentum. And as Zak said, that is the same for everybody and I’m sure that at 24 you can go back to the hotel at 2am. It's not an issue.
TW; Yeah, I think like Fred said, you know, we are suffering on a high level here, OK. I think if you talk about jet lag and stress, you speak about 80% of the team people that fly economy class, that have Monday to Friday jobs in the factory, that work on the cars here overnight. We have 190 people here, most of them deployed on marketing. They've been, some of them. since four weeks in Las Vegas, preparing everything. So that's the contribution that everybody needs to give to the sport. And I'm sure that the majority of the drivers will see it that way.
JV: I think it's been well said. It’s a first world problem in as much as we're in a good state, the sport is in a really healthy state. That's why we have sponsors, partners and a show here fundamentally, exactly as Zak said. Our drivers are being pulled left, right and centre. But it's a good thing. If you compared to where we were in 2020 we were worried if Formula 1 would even continue. It's an absolute pleasure now to at least see that we're in a good financial state. It's just an optimisation problem. And there's two things in there. So jet lag. First and foremost, I think what perhaps we didn't fully realise until we got here is this isn't really eastern coast time, we're now more into Tokyo time to a certain extent with the hours we're running. But that's just an optimisation. They're incredibly good at working with their trainers, re-orientating their food patterns and nutrition in order to get themselves back into the rhythm, and I think by tonight and by tomorrow that there'll be completely on the time. As Toto said, the problem impacts 100 people really, not just the two that are there. The second of those is that constantly, for probably the last 10 years, we've been trying to balance the requirements for partners against the requirements for performance on track. And I think we're in a fairly good place at the moment.
TW; The mechanics don't have anybody, physios, cuddling them before they go to bed and preparing their granola in the morning. So I think there's many that really suffer more and drink an espresso too.
Q: (Christian Menath - Motorsport-magazin.com) First part of the question is for James only, the rest for the remaining three. General Motors has made it clear that if they come to Formula 1, they just want to do it with Andretti. What can you say about that change? Because you hinted that you will probably be interested in General Motors as well. And for the remaining three, what do you think about General Motors and their commitment to build their own engine?
JV: I saw the same news you did. I can't really comment much on it. I don't know what the relationship is between those two entities. My comment was more that GM, I think, is a good company to bring into our sport. That was more what it was around and we have no discussions with them. But I just think they're the sort of company, the sort of OEM, that will grow our sport as a result of things. But my view hasn't changed on the addition of an 11th team. Fundamentally, it's still around the finances of Williams, which is where my focus is.
TW: Well, GM is one of the big players, no doubt. And I guess if they say they want to join the sport in ‘28, they're serious about it and it's a good commitment. But, you know, we need to see whether the Commercial Rights Holder deems this to be a good entry or not. Like James said, for many teams it is big dilution that can make the difference between, you know, big losses or less losses. And I haven't changed my opinion on that. We haven't seen any data, just to say it's going be awesome. Where's the case? What are the numbers? How much can we gain in popularity? What's the name worth? How much more can the sport be attractive? What are the facts? And if those facts are positive, I have no doubt that F1 will consider that in that way.
FV: If the question is on GM, I think every single new engine supplier is welcome in F1. But it's not the same story as the 11th team. It’s two separate questions. I think the real question is on the engine supplier and we can have a new engine supplier.
ZB: Yeah, we partner with GM in our IndyCar team. They've got a great history in motor racing and the more power units in the sport, I think, the better.
Q: (Jordan Bianchi - The Athletic) Considering everything that went into this, how is this not considered a black eye for Formula 1? And granted, yes, this happens elsewhere but with everything that went into this race, and everything that transpired, how does Formula 1 move forward from this?
TW: That is not a black eye. This is nothing. We are Thursday night, we have a Free Practice 1 session that we're not doing. They're going to seal the drain covers and nobody's going to talk about that tomorrow morning anymore…
Q: (Off mic follow-up from separate questioner)
TW: Did you ask the question? It's completely ridiculous, completely ridiculous! FP1, how can you even dare trying to talk bad about an event that sets the new standards, new standards to everything. And then you're speaking about a fucking drain cover that's been undone, that has happened before. That's nothing. It's FP1. Give credit to the people that have set up this Grand Prix, that have made the sport much bigger than it ever was. Have you ever spoken good about someone and written a good word? You should about all these people that have been out here. Liberty has done an awesome job. And just because in FP1 a drain cover has become undone, we shouldn't be moaning. The car is broken, that's really a shame. For Carlos, it could have been dangerous, so between the FIA and the track and everybody needs to analyse how we can make sure that this is not happening again. But talking here about a black eye for the sport on a Thursday evening. Nobody watches that in European time anyway.
JV: I’d probably just add, judge us by what happens when the chequered flag falls on Saturday, rather than what's just happened in the last half an hour.
TW: Bravo, much more eloquently said than me, but that's the point.
Q: (Alex Kalinauckas – Autosport) The same question to Toto and Fred, but Fred, I understand if you don't want to comment, given what you said earlier, but looking at the season overall, I know it's not the topic of the moment, but it's not been the season Ferrari and Mercedes have wanted. I just wondered, for both of you, when was the exact moment and where were you that you realised that things weren't going to go as well as you'd hoped in terms of kind of your car?
FV: Bahrain. Bahrain, Free Practice 1.
TW: Bahrain testing. No, I think from a Mercedes standpoint, we had a really good end of the season in 2022 and we believed that we can fix this, stick to the concept of the car and get better out of the blocks in ‘23. And already in testing, we could see that that didn't happen. The drivers basically described the same pattern of behaviour of the car, it was unpredictable, no rear end and it was clear that this is not going to go our way.
Q: Fred, any more? Bahrain testing for you?
FV: Yeah, the first morning of the test, I think that it was quite obvious already that… but then you have still some hopes, you are developing the car, you are pushing, you are hoping to do pole position, to win one or two races, but I think at the end that Max will win all the races except one, two or three maximum now. It was a tough season, but for sure we don't have to (unclear). I think the most important thing in our business is to have a clearer picture of what we are doing and to try to improve and the result is what we were expecting.
Q: (Christian Nimmervoll – Motorsport-total.com) Fred, we understand there's been some issues with the track inspection on Tuesday, the track not being ready for sign-off, then being delayed until Wednesday. Now, probably in a track inspection, you can’t discover concrete breaking but do you think that the process needs to be refined and optimised? And have you been aware of this at all that there's been some issues?
FV: No. As you understood, I'm a bit upset and I don't want to draw any conclusions in this moment, that for sure that it's difficult to understand, but it is like it is. And I think we'll have time to discuss about this and to try to improve the system later on. But I'm still a bit shocked and I prefer to, in this condition, to stay quiet.
Q: (Jenna Fryer – AP) Fred, I understand you’re understandably upset. What would help, what would make you feel better at this stage?
FV: A donation, no? No, I'm not saying that. It is like it is. We know that it's a sporting event, we know that this can happen. You can have a bad FP1. Now we have to recover on the weekend, that we have to find solutions. Track time is crucial in this kind of event, with a new track, with a new track for the drivers, with a new track also for us. It means that if Carlos misses FP2, at the end of the sporting side, it will be detrimental but I will keep in mind also that it could have been much worse. And we will do our best over the weekend but it's a long way but you know every single detail is important. But don't forget the donation!
Q: (Luke Smith – The Athletic) Toto, I'd like to ask your question about Kimi Antonelli and his progression – a change of subject I know. Mercedes has normally taken quite a gradual approach with its young drivers but to fast track him from Formula Regional into Formula 2 is quite a big step up. How much of a statement is that from Mercedes and the belief you've got in his talent, and I also saw on Susie's Instagram that he was out go-karting with Jack. Is he helping Jack get into racing and karting?
TW: You’re really saving the day with the questions. So, we got Kimi under the wings in 2012, actually, it was you, no [to James Vowles]? And he was a great kid already then. You could see the character, he was strong. We had him in the garage and there was a lot of confidence. And then in go-karting his track record was immense, and then you put him in the junior formulas and he wins every single season in his rookie year. But we’ve got to be careful because there's a lot of hype around Kimi. Putting him into F2 is a big step because those cars are heavier and much more powerful. But if we give him his time, and don't expect him to be killing it in his first season, I think he can be a really great one in this sport. He’s 17 in August. This is so young. Yeah, and we get on well, the families and he's coaching our six-year-old. He's not taking any advice from me, so with Kimi at least to have some access to describe apexes and exits of corners.
Q: Do you see Formula 2 as a two-year programme for him?
TW: I think it depends on how it goes. It's new cars, which is an advantage and it all depends on how quick you can be but there's some tough competitors that get to go into the second season - Fred has one - that are highly rated and I think whether it's a season or two, he needs to demonstrate that he’s ready for a seat in F1. And there's another step in between; we’ve got to concentrate on F2, nothing else.
Q: (Alex Kalinauckas – Autosport) Question to all four of you: this isn't the first time that something unexpected has gone wrong: think about Qatar and the kerbs there. Okay, the track layout wasn't changed, but it was all resurfaced. Pretty difficult shutting down a city or with the current generation of F1 cars producing forces that other categories won't but might it be a good idea to have a test event for new facilities and things?
ZB: I think it's pretty hard on a street. Also you need to rely on your simulation, your experience and then the various inspections that they do, but as I mentioned before, I think what we need to do now is focus on fixing the problem, which I'm very confident we'll do, as James said, a long way to go over the weekend. We'll put on a good show come race day and then look back and go ‘what happened and can we make sure that doesn't happen again?’ And as you say, mistakes happen, don't make the same mistake twice whatever that may be. But I think we need to first fix the issue and get the show back on the road.
FV: It has nothing to do with the incident of today, but I think on this kind of event, it would make sense also to have support races to run the track before. I don't want to take them as a… No, no, seriously, for the system for the yellow flag and so it would make sense to have other categories on track when you think that the first start of the track will be on Sunday or Saturday. But I think that it could make sense to have the other series on track during the weekend, to do a test session before it's quite impossible when it's a street circuit.
TW: Like I said before, unemotionally, drain covers, it's a problem that we've known before. It happens on new tracks. This one is a bit freakish because the concrete broke out and they're going to fix it and then from then on, I think it's going to be improved. And like Fred said, the marshals need to learn the track and we need to see where the cars stop, how quickly can you get a car off the track? And that will take a few years to really synchronise it well. But that's the normal teething problems.
JV: Well said by my colleagues. I have nothing to add.