A close look at McLaren’s standard ECU

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At the Autosport International show last weekend I came across the stand for McLaren Electronic Systems – the company which won the bid to provide the standard engine control unit to Formula 1 teams for 2008.

Although the deal attracted little attention when it was announced in 2006 it has become a bone of contention, particularly since McLaren became embroiled in the Ferrari espionage scandal last year. Ferrari and other teams have suggested it will give McLaren an unfair advantage as they will be familiar with the system.

This picture shows the little back McLaren-branded box that will be inside every F1 car this year and should provide the FIA with the means by which it can police a ban on traction control. The company had some interesting things to say about it at the show.

The MES spokesperson I chatted to explained that three different companies put in bids for the contract, one of which was long-term Ferrari suppliers Magneti Marelli.

Winning the contract has meant a substantial increase in business for MES, which like the McLaren Formula 1 team is owned by the McLaren Group. In order to fulfil the contract to supply the entire grid they have taken on several extra staff.

He suggested the cost to other teams of purchasing ECUs from McLaren would be less than half of what it currently costs them to produce their own units. However the price of a complete set of control units and sensors for a single car would be measured in tens of thousands of pounds, which is a mere fraction of the millions spent on engines, aerodynamics and the like.

The teams should also save money on staffing, as they will no longer need to spend resources on developing their ECUs. Not good news if you’re an ECU software developer…

As to the vexed question of whether it would give McLaren an inherent advantage, he explained the unit bore some similarities with the system formerly used by McLaren.

What intrigues me is this: since Renault escaped their spying hearing with no punishment, when McLaren received a substantial fine, many people have made remarks about the FIA being biased against McLaren. Surely the fact that MES won this contract shows this is not the case.

As I wrote at the time, there might have been more of a fuss if the contract had been won by Ferrari or Magneti Marelli.

More about traction control

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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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30 comments on “A close look at McLaren’s standard ECU”

  1. As every team will have McLaren Intellectual Property on their cars for 2008, is it going to cost them all £50 million??

  2. “Surely the fact that MES won this contract shows this is not the case”

    i say this deal was all about microsoft, MES was a secondary concern. the fia wanted formula 1 to be associated with that brand (and have done for a long time), to hell with everything else. macca knew that and thus chose them wisely.

    just look at how much input microsoft have actually put into this partnership… absolutely nothing.

    it’s a brand name that the fia can trot out when feel the need.

    i’m guessing on the timing screens / tv captions during every race:

    “Live timing provided by Microsoft in association with FIA”

    or something along those lines.

  3. That’s a good point – the ‘Microsoft’ word never came up once and I haven’t heard much of it since the original announcement.

  4. Critics would have born also if another one won the bid for the ECU

  5. Perhaps and that is a big perhaps – the fia have become closer to allowing a market driven solution in that out of the providers themost competive/cheapest product has won? – we’ll see

  6. I must admit to disliking the idea of a spec component being provided by one if the teams. It doesn’t matter to me which of the teams had been awarded the contract it is just plain wrong that any of them should have been given it. The contract should have been given to an independent company.

    I am sure the Microsoft brand was appealing to the FIA and that together with the price swayed the FIA.

    It is a huge leap of logic to say that giving a contract to produce a small component proves there is no bias against McLaren when stacked against the evidence of all the previous cases.

  7. this component must be made by a independent as you end up with one team saying mcLaren getting work though back door

  8. So, if Magneti Marelli was one of the candidates, and MES was another, who was the third candidate? Since the former two had a duopoly on the grid, I would have thought that the third option would have been the wiser move in terms of fairness.

  9. You’re right, Keith. I wonder why. Could it be because Microsoft has never been interested in racing as a whole before this? Also, maybe they don’t want the negative publicity if the ECU goes belly-up.

  10. Steven, this isn’t one small component. This is the ECU we’re talking about, basically the brain of the car. All sorts of data pass through here, and the FIA would have needed to be OK with whoever was going to make it.

  11. “Could it be because Microsoft has never been interested in racing as a whole before this? Also, maybe they don’t want the negative publicity if the ECU goes belly-up”


    since when have microsoft had any objection to releasing shoddy software? and when was the last time youi saw them run away from bad publicity?

    the ‘collaboration’ has nothing to do with technology, it’s purely a marketing thing.

  12. Yeah, I don’t think Microsoft had any real involvement with the ECU, it was just a marketing stunt.

    Concerning the live timing comment made in the 2nd post: I don’t think that is going to happen personally. I still think timing is going to be provided by Siemens.

  13. The best thing FIA should have done was to call for an independent to build the ECU. The problem is that eletronics in F1 is so complicated and tecnically-demanding, so it would have been very difficult to do an ECU for a newcomer.

  14. “I still think timing is going to be provided by Siemens.”

    sorry, yes i do too.

    but i think they’ll squeeze some MS branding in there too. maybe a ‘start menu button’ in the corner or something.

  15. “Steven, this isn’t one small component. This is the ECU we’re talking about, basically the brain of the car”

    I understand what it is I was thinking financially. I read somewhere that the whole contract is only worth a few hundred thousand pounds. It hardly compares with losing the Prodrive business for example. It won’t even come close to the money they have spent and lost on the Prodrive project already.

    I have to agree withesidepodcast on the timing. The ECU and the timing are entirely separate. The one thing which would be good and could use the Microsoft branding is if we got real time data from the ECUs on TV.

  16. Blue Screen of Deaths coming to F1 in 2008? New button on the steering wheel for a cold reset?

    Does this mean Ferrari can do without Magnetti Marelli now, or will they still be used for the other electricals and fine tuning the ECU (is that allowed?) trying to get the most out of it?

    I think it was a while back when the likes of Ferrari and Renault were testing these saying the most uncomfortable thing is when they need help with integrating the ECU with their implementations, then essentially they are letting someone from an opposing team “look” at their systems. I don’t know how true it is, but I guess their concerns – regardless whoever won the tender only if they were an opposing team – are only natural. The whole spy fiasco doesn’t put McLaren in good stead, regardless of whether people believe one verdict or the other.

    Let’s see how many viable excuses will be made with the ECU.

  17. The MES bid for the standard ECU was not necessarily the cheapest or the best. We just don’t know what the bids were and the FIA are not about to tell us. It is very likely that the MES product was chosen because of the Microsoft connection and that it had nothing to do with the quality of the product.

    Ferrari were not the only team that used the Magneti Marelli ECU – Renault were, for instance. In discussing their problems in adjusting to the MES ECU, Pat Symonds mentioned that part of the problem was that the MES product was much less sophisticated than the ECU they had been using. Presumably this means that the Marelli product was actually better and this should have been taken into account when deciding which company would build the standard ECU. Clearly, it wasn’t.

    Magneti Marelli is owned by FIAT but supply many of the teams with electronics and electrical gear; MES supplies and is owned by McLaren. Does not that make the MES product more obviously a conflict of interest? I said at the time that the FIA were storing up trouble for the future with their choice and so it has proved.

    This is the first time I’ve heard that a third company tendered for the ECU. If that one too had connections with a particular team that could lead to a conflict of interest, the FIA should have shelved the matter until an independent supplier could be found. I think there was more to the deal than we were told – and, no doubt, money was involved.

  18. Ferrari and Renault have stated they have worked through their initial adaptation problems with the new ECU, so what’s the fuss? A less sophisticated ECU? That’s the whole point of standardizing anything, is it not? Fewer functions, less cost.

    As for McLaren having an edge, I put it into the same category as Ferrari having an edge due to everybody now on Bridgestones. No, as both components are sufficiently different as to be considered all new.

    If the contract request for the new ECU came out today is there any chance McLaren would get the award?

  19. I think the new ECU is deliberately less sophisticated than the old one. It is not a case that Magnetti Marelli had a more complex unit than McLaren in 2007 but that the 2008 McLaren unit is less complex than the 2007 Magnetti Marelli unit

  20. I think MES won the contract because theirs was the most economical solution. The bid had already been won long before the spy drama started. The bid was open to everyone, Ferrari, BMW, Williams, Honda..etc, could have submitted their own bid and won the contract. Not everybody likes change.

  21. This sort of thing just isn’t worth complaining about. Ferrari and Renault can’t change the ECU now, so maybe they should just try and even out any (slight) disadvantage it gives them. That is the point of F1, if you want a level playing field you have to work for it, not have it handed to you on a plate and then complain when the slightest disadvantage is given to you.

  22. From Renault F1 weblog:

    Marelli ECU Step 11 – 2004-2007

    – 12 controllers or DSPs (calculation oriented processors)
    – Functions: engine control (ignition/injection/fly-by-wire accelerator), chassis control (gearbox, clutch, differential, chassis measurements). Integrated engine chassis telemetry
    – Total calculating power: around 2000 Mips (millions of instructions per second)
    – Length: 250 mm
    – Width: 142 mm
    – Height: 75 mm
    – Weight: 2,170 kgs

    MES TAG310B – 2008/2010

    – Design: Microsoft/McLaren Electronic Systems
    – Development and operation: MES (programmes)/ Renault F1 (adaptations and calibration)
    – Processors: 4 main processors
    – Functions: engine control (/ignition/injection/fly-by-wire accelerator), chassis control (gearbox, clutch, differential, chassis measurements). Integrated engine chassis telemetry
    – Applications: complete control of the vehicle from the 2008 season onwards, Renault and Red Bull Racing teams (the whole F1 field will use this common ECU)
    – Total calculating power: 1700 Mips
    – Length: 152 mm
    – Width: 167 mm
    – Height: 56 mm
    – Weight: 1,300 kgs

  23. In re: to above specifications – if they are just electronic units (no mechanical wotsits), how come they are so big and heavy (comparatively speaking) and yet don’t really compute that quickly?

    I have no idea how much computational power the cars require whilst running, which is why I’m asking, but 1700-2000 MIPS is like higher end Pentium III territory (800/900MHz), almost 10 years ago now, and nowadays that kinda power can be passively cooled easily with a lot of headroom for extra performance capacity.

    Obviously 1700-2000 MIPS is enough for an F1 car, as proven previously, but what else is there aside from processor and other base-computer architecture which makes it so big and heavy? I can’t imagine fail-safe systems, and/or cooling architecture occupying that much.

  24. As Keith pointed out this decision proves that the FIA doesn’t always favour Ferrari but actually also favours McLaren. To state that the ECU is just some small part in a F1 car is pretty funny indeed. The ECU is the single most important part of the car as it basically controls the whole thing!
    I agree that someone independent should’ve been chosen (Motec anyone?) as there are a multitude of benefits that McLaren has from this. Or does anyone wish to argue that if there are two requests for help, one from a third party, another from the owner of the company, the owner of the company would be helped first?
    To say that the fact that the MES system was supposedly the most economical is the reason that it was chosen would have to be based on full knowledge of what the different prices and companies were.
    It was a political decision and it went McLaren’s way – full stop –

  25. “It was a political decision and it went McLaren’s way – full stop -”

    If the basis of the award is not known, how can you make the above statement? It may well have been a political choice (one which I disagree with) but we aren’t privy to the facts.

  26. “we aren’t privy to the facts”
    So basically we’re just debating nothing.

  27. theRoswellite
    16th January 2008, 17:26

    Having little technical knowledge concerning this unit, I’m left with only one hope: I pray for its reliability daily, and for all the realm over which the FIA doth spread its good graces, and should one of these little pithies fail, please Dear Lord, let it not be in a Ferrari on the last lap of the Italian GP.

  28. I would guess the answer to the earlier comment that a Pentium III has the same processing power is that it may have before the engine is fired up but it wouldn’t last very long before it was vibrated to dust. I assume the weight is made up of vibration protection and possibly multiple redundancy.

  29. “If the basis of the award is not known, how can you make the above statement? It may well have been a political choice (one which I disagree with) but we aren’t privy to the facts.”

    Ok, then let me explain my reasoning behind my statement:

    1. A lot of people keep complaning about the Ferrari bias of the FIA.

    So when deciding in favour of Ferrari the FIA is the biggest sesspit of political snakes, but these same snakes then change their skin to become hardcore-capitalist businessmen without an emotion and decide in favour of McLaren when they purchase one of the most important parts of an F1 car. Hmm, doesn’t sound very realistic, does it?

    2. By deciding in favour of MES, the FIA knew that there would be complaints, also possibly in the future if one of those units would fail.

    Now I don’t think anyone could argue that the FIA wouldn’t know that, they aren’t that stupid. So why would they decide like this?
    They definitely didn’t do this to save a few dollars or because another company didn’t have the technical expertise, no they did it because of some other reason.
    Maybe it was to counter their alleged Ferrari-bias, maybe it was to prevent McLaren to push too hard about the issue of customer cars, who knows?
    Due to the reasons I mentioned above it must have been a politically motivated decision.

  30. Thanks for your explanation Michael. Obviously everything in F1 is politically tinged, but I don’t think it was the primary factor in selecting the ECU vendor. All other factors being equal, a political insight may have tossed it McLaren’s way. But it couldn’t have been (I hope!) the over riding or sole reason.

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