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APRIL 28, 2008

Martin Whitmarsh on Heikki Kovalainen and the Spanish Grand Prix

The Spanish Grand Prix was a bitter-sweet race for the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team. On the one hand Lewis Hamilton returned to form, finishing third and adding to his score in the Formula 1 Drivers' World Championship, but on the other hand, Heikki Kovalainen crashed heavily. Kovalainen is fine?

"Absolutely," says Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren's managing director. "He has had a full head scan and there is no significant bruising or damage - that™s extremely good news. Heikki was briefly unconscious but he was lucid soon after the accident and I™m told he was actually quite jolly, which is fairly typical."

The crash seemed to be caused by a wheel failure of some kind?

"We think he suffered a wheel rim failure that caused his front-left tyre to deflate almost instantaneously," Whitmarsh says. "It™s possible that some debris worked its way inside the rim, but we still have to analyse that. It was a new wheel and we don™t think it was a structural failure. There were some score marks, but we don™t know whether they were caused by debris or by his trip across the gravel trap. We™ve got to answer that later."

It was a big accident. What were the forces involved?

"Cars brake from about 260km/h at that point on the circuit and he didn™t scrub off a huge amount of speed before impact - he was still travelling pretty quickly when he hit the tyre wall," Whitmarsh says. "The impact lasted about 100 milliseconds, which might not sound much but 20-30 milliseconds would be more usual. His misfortune overshadowed the event, but people shouldn™t overlook the quality of his performance. He had still to pit for fuel at the time of the accident and wasn™t due to come in for a few more laps yet. That gives you some idea of the fuel load he was carrying during qualifying, when he did an absolutely fantastic lap."

The car was written-off?

"It was destroyed, yes," saysWhitmarsh. "The front of the chassis broke off. The chassis is wedge-shaped and we imagine it went in to the barriers until the point at which it snapped. A section of about 450-500mm broke off the front of the chassis, but everything worked as it was supposed to. The car absorbed a massive amount of energy, Heikki received no physical injuries and the circuit emergency staff and the FIA medical team at the track did an absolutely fantastic job in getting him out of the car safely and then looking after him thereafter."

What about Lewis's performance?

"Lewis drove a great race," says Whitmarch. "He took a very measured approach at the beginning, because we reasoned that Fernando Alonso, who was running just ahead of him, was possibly a little bit lighter on fuel. It would have been very easy for Lewis to chase down Fernando at that stage and damage his tyres, which might have prevented him from taking advantage of Fernando™s earlier stop. In fact, Lewis did just the right job in holding back and doing minimal damage to his tyres, so as to be able to press on later, and that clearly put him in good shape. During the second and third stints he was as quick as the Ferraris and able to catch up, but trying to pass a rival car at the Circuit de Catalunya is another matter altogether."

Has the levels of performance of the major teams changed. Most teams expected to make an improvement but do you think the order is any different?

"The three quickest teams - ourselves, Ferrari and BMW-Sauber - looked to be very closely matched," says Whitmarsh. "Renault has taken a major step forwards, too. It looks good for the sport, but we have to build on our own solid performance. We know we have some more developments coming through and we have to make sure we get them as soon as we can. There will be some more new parts on the car in Turkey and we simply have to keep pushing."