New row over McLaren ECUs

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F1 team bosses are split over the new Electronic Control Units set to be introduced into F1 next year.

From 2008 teams will have to used a standard unit rather than build their own. Among other things this will allow the FIA to ensure teams obey next year’s ban on traction control.

But the plan for the units has attracted criticism. Many expressed surprise when the contracts to produce the units was awarded to a company linked to an F1 team – McLaren Electronic Systems. Some teams have also complained the units do not work with their engines.

Are the concerns legitimate? Or are a few teams kicking up a fuss for political reasons?

Briatore’s complaint

Renault boss Flavio Briatore voiced his concerns about the standard ECUs at the Hungaroring three weeks ago, saying:

At the moment I’m writing a protest. We don’t want them. First of all, because they don’t work on our cars: the cars don’t even start up. And second, why should we send some of our data to McLaren?

Briatore made these remarks at the same time he attacked McLaren over the Ferrari espionage scandal. So was this just Briatore having a dig at rival Ron Dennis, or is he genuinely unhappy with the ECUs arrangement?

Teams split

Now Ferrari and BMW have joined the criticism. Ferrari’s engine designer Gilles Simon said: “We have had safety issues that we explained to the FIA.”

BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen added: “There are some issues we are concerned about. We know that the FIA is dealing with it and have provided the FIA with the information we have experienced so far. It would need quite significant work on the software side if we want to get it ready for the winter tests.”

However some teams seem to be happy with the arrangement – Honda have reported no such problems.

Controversial idea

Moving towards standard ECUs has been a controversial process. The car manufacturers resisted it for years because they considered it an important part of their contribution towards creating an F1 car.

Max Mosley finally got the teams to agree to it after his survey of fans overwhelmingly demonstrated that most fans feel traction control and other ECU-managed aids diminish the driver’s role in getting the most out of the car.

But banning traction control is just one reason why standard ECUs have been imposed. They meet several of Mosley’s objectives: reducing costs, increasing competition, improving fuel efficiency and allowing the use of energy recovery systems.

There was some surprise when the winner of the contract to supply the ECUs for 2008-2010 was revealed to be McLaren Electronic Systems – part of the McLaren Group that includes the McLaren Formula One team – in partnership with software giant Microsoft.

What is McLaren Electronic Systems?

MES has 15 years’ experience of building control and data retrieval systems to teams in F1. At the time of winning the tender MES managing director Peter van Manen said they already work with every team on the F1 grid. They also supply teams in the World Rally Championship, Indy Racing League, NASCAR, sports car racing and even Moto GP.

MES currently supplies the control system used by McLaren, and won the tender to supply standard ECUs for the entire grid starting next year in partnership with Microsoft.

If the complaining teams are unhappy that a company so close to another F1 team has won the tender, they’ve taken a long time to start protesting it – MES made its presentation to the FIA in July last year.

The complexity of the ECUs is such that a late change in supplier seems unlikely. An ECU gathers data from over 100 sensors on a car compiling around 1Gb of data per Grand Prix, all of which is continuously broadcast to the pits throughout a race.

Standard ECUs are central to Mosley’s plans for the future of F1. With the sport already mired in a turbulent and controversial year it’s doubtful that Mosley will be happy to entertain the complaints of the team bosses if he thinks they’re just whingeing in an attempt to undermine McLaren.

Photos: DaimlerChrysler, Charles Coates/LAT Photographic, DaimlerChrysler

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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8 comments on “New row over McLaren ECUs”

  1. Flav is right, the FIA can’t go around licensing stuff to existing teams. They must have known this would be controversial, so why did they do it? Maybe they just like making trouble for themselves, I don’t know. The deal could be totally legit, but you can bet your house that Ferrari won’t like it.

  2. I think some teams just don’t want ECU’s period: the Mclaren link is a tenuous reason to complain about the direction Max wants the sport to go in.

  3. And I don’t like the direction MadMax is taking the “sport” either !!!!!

  4. Spyker will not care, Toro Rosso will not care, but anybody who sees McLaren as a competitor of course can’t be happy … This part is sure political, and it had to be expected

    But, politics or no politics, if the unit does not work that creates another, legitimate issue. what if the teams will not be able to make the ECUs work fine with their cars on time for next season ? will they scrap the idea ? when would be the deadline for teams to be able to revert to old ECUs ? what will that mean for the traction control ban ? the 1 reason for introducing the TC ban was the standard ECU that limits the chances of TC cheating …

    Briatore does not side with Ferrari that often …

  5. F1 is a sport for individual manufacturers and the development of their cars and technolgies should remain with them. If this is the way Madmax want’s the sport to go we may as well scrap F1 and watch GP 2 and A1 GP.

  6. At the time that the ECUs were imposed, Max made it clear that he would not be entertaining any alternative measures to imposing standard ECUs. The teams by that point were fed up of fighting the FIA, so that’s why they’ve waited until (some of them) can prove a more fundamental problem before complaining. If Max had been a little more reasonable, this problem could have been solved ages ago because the teams would have felt there was a point in saying something.

  7. Some things surfaced on my mind this year.
    1. why Vodaphone sponsored a poor performance 2006’s McLaren instead of looking at Renault if they wanted to leave Ferrari?

    2. How is possible that the brighten Renault could fall so bad in less than one year?

    3. Last year McLaren was very poor performance and few races were finished. Now all races are very trustful to end as leaders.

    4. If they had confidential information, technical spy, from Ferrari. Just a fool could not used that information. McLaren this years reminds much Ferrari from past years.

    5 why commisioners let Hammilton to re-start the before last race after crashing his car and helped by a help car?

  8. There is a solution to all this conspiracy theorizing: make the ECU software open source, and require a chief engineers’ committee to review and approve each code submission before incorporating it into the standard build. Yes, it’s yet another committee, but it brings all the politics out into the open instead of hiding it in cloak-and-dagger shadows.

    And here’s a really far-reaching idea, which will be nixed because it’s responsive to the audience: accept code contributions from anyone, just like any other open source project. What a way to increase fan involvement!

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