Pre-season technical review

2011 F1 season preview

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Jenson Button, McLaren, Barcelona, 2011

Guest writer John Beamer reviews the innovations on the 2011 F1 cars revealed so far.

As the fourth pre-season test begins it is still difficult to judge the 2011 pecking order. But we can draw some informed conclusions about the general picture.

Common wisdom pegs Red Bull and Ferrari out in front with Renault and Williams vying for third and fourth, with McLaren and Mercedes further back. Yes, you did read that correctly!

But remember, this is only testing and there are many further developments to come. If you believe the utterances from the McLaren garage, they treat it differently to say a Red Bull or a Ferrari.

McLaren’s public position is that pre-season testing is the one opportunity to correlate on track performance with the wind tunnel and CFD. That’s partly why the MP4-26 trundles around the track looking like farm machinery.

While that is true to extent everything else points to the new McLaren being woeful. To understand why this might let’s first look at what Red Bull and Ferrari have done right.

Red Bull RB7

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Jerez, 2011

Superficially there are few if any radical innovations on the car – no trick exhausts or U-shaped sidepods.

And you’d be worried if there was. This is a car that won ten races last year and had a 0.5s performance advantage at the end of the season. Instead what Adrian Newey has done is continue to focus on optimising the car to eek out every last millisecond of performance.

The biggest change has been to the sidepods and cooling setup to try to improve the airflow in the ‘coke bottle’ zone and over the diffuser. As was apparent in the double diffuser era getting clean air to the rear of the car is crucial for good downforce.

When the RB5 was launched one way Newey made the rear end slimmer was to place a cooling outlet in the centre of the car above the gearbox. However, there were still some cooling ducts aft of the radiators in the coke bottle zone.

The RB7 has eliminated these and routes all radiator cooling to the central duct. This allows the ‘coke bottle’ to be super-slim and expose more of the floor surrounding the diffuser to clear air.

The other major visual change to the RB7 is to the exhausts. Last year Red Bull pioneered the exhaust-blown diffuser (EBD) and has a lot of experience with the system.

This year teams are trying all sorts of exhaust tricks and the Red Bull solution is to route the exhausts to the 50mm zone at the edge of the diffuser where a cut can be applied to allow the exhausts to route under the diffuser. Look carefully in the ‘coke bottle’ zone and you’ll see a raised angled section between the engines and the edge of the floor – this carries the exhausts.

Ferrari 150??? Italia

Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Barcelona, 2011

When first launched many thought that the 150??? Italia was a tad conservative. The team retained push rod rear suspension configuration, the sidepods weren’t as hugely undercut as other teams’ were and, well, the car just didn’t look particularly radical.

However, in other ways the car was different. By retaining a push rod layout Ferrari is now in a minority. In some ways this is a bigger call than adopting a pull rod layout given it was perceived wisdom that pull rod was the way to go. No doubt the Ferrari designers spent hours debating this.

Ferrari has changed the suspension layout at the rear and slimmed down component packaging. For instance there are no visible bulges housing the rockers and dampers. It appears Ferrari have dropped the rear torsion bars so is effectively running with no rear side springs, allowing the suspension componentary to be further reduced.

Last year there were suggestions that Ferrari ran interconnected suspension i.e., linked the front and rear axles as this allows better control of the cars’ attitude to create more consistent downforce from the floor and diffuser. Ferrari blows the exhausts over the centre of the diffuser and pass some the gasses through the starter motor hole to create more downforce.

So far in testing the car looks quick. It isn’t a radical car by any stretch but like the Red Bull it is an evolution of its predecessor.

McLaren MP4-26

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Jerez, 2011

In 2009 McLaren launched its worst car in a decade. In testing the MP4-24 was some 2.5s off the pace as the McLaren designers interpreted the new regulations very conservatively.

Meanwhile Brawn pioneered the double diffuser, which meant their car stuck to the track like araldite and the allowed Button to establish such a dominant lead in the first half of the season that it didn’t change the outcome when other teams finally caught up.

You can imagine the conversation in Woking, "Damn those Brawn boys ?? next year we are going to product the biggest and most powerful double diffuser in the galaxy". And that is what McLaren did.

The MP4-25 was designed around a huge double diffuser. Sure, peak downforce was impressive – I bet the wind tunnel readings were off the scale – but to use the double diffuser the car had to be set up incredibly stiffly, which meant it was susceptible to even the smallest bumps and was pitch sensitive in the extreme. It turned out that shooting for more consistent downforce led to a better lap – both Red Bull and Ferrari produced a more supple car that was ultimately faster than the McLaren.

Also during 2010 testing the McLaren designers see Adrian Newey wheel out trick exhausts and further refine the rear cooling and suspension arrangement to maximise airflow over the double diffuser. Now fast-forward to 2011 and picture the conversation as the design team snuggled around the boardroom in the design office, "To beat Red Bull we need to come up with the craziest exhaust system and a wacky idea to optimise airflow to the rear wing." And here we are with an exhaust system that melts the under tray and L-shaped sidepods that at first blush are not producing sufficient rear grip.

McLaren MP4-26 launch, Berlin, 2011

Let’s take a closer look at some of the innovations of the MP4-26. The two major talking points are the sidepods and exhausts. There are two exhaust configurations: a now standard rear exiting exhaust which blows gas over the top of the diffuser; and a trick exhaust that exits forward of the gearbox to energise airflow around or under the floor. No one is quite sure where the trick exhausts exit but photos show a very clear U-bend as the exhausts exit the engine. Indeed there were even suggestions of multiple exits for the trick exhausts but these are unconfirmed.

In the first two tests McLaren ran a series of back-to-back experiments with the exhaust systems to try to baseline the downforce improvement. However, its unclear whether there was any improvement and when McLaren announced that they were hampered by a shortage of components it pointed to insufficient heat shielding at the exhaust exits.

It will be interesting to see the configuration McLaren opts to race with in Australia – if it is the standard exhaust set-up then they will be writing off millions of pounds worth of exhaust research.

The other innovation is the U-shaped sidepods. The theory here is that the U-shaped sidepods increase the air flow to the beam wing. This in turn reduced the pressure gradient above the diffuser and results in more downforce.

There are some compromises to this approach. First the radiator inlets need to be bigger. This is because the inlets are in line with the front tyres which generate dirty air. The more energized the air the better the cooling performance.

Also the radical shape means the McLaren sidepods are less undercut that some of their challengers. This will restrict the flow to the coke-bottle zone around the side of the car. The balancing equation is whether increased flow over the centre of the car more than offsets the complex radiator set-up and reduced undercut.

Renault, Williams, Toro Rosso

Nick Heidfeld, Renault, Jerez, 2011

Three other teams have produced significant innovations in the off-season: Renault, Williams and Toro Rosso. They are all looking to solve the same two problems that McLaren were, namely how to optimise the use of exhaust gasses and maximise rear downforce in the wake of the new diffuser regulations.

Renault sprung a surprise on the other teams with its innovative new exhausts. The exhausts route from the engine underneath the radiators and exit at the front of the sidepods and point under the floor. Exhaust gasses will drive a higher volume of airflow to the diffuser which increases downforce.

The challenges are twofold. First, the exhaust pipe runs at about 800C so a lot of heat shielding is required. Second, the engine mapping settings need to ensure there is a consistent flow of air to the diffuser especially during corner entry when downforce is needed and the drive is off the throttle.

Pastor Maldonado, Williams, Barcelona, 2011

Williams and Toro Rosso have focused on pushing more air over the diffuser. As mentioned earlier this create lower pressure above the diffuser, which means the pressure gradient is lower. This generates more downforce and is better for consistency as airflow stays attached in the diffuser.

Williams’ solution is to aggressively shrink the gearbox to create a super-tight ‘coke bottle’. By reducing the blockage ahead of the diffuser the airflow over the device is much cleaner and also lowers the centre of gravity. The smaller gearbox has ramifications for the drive shaft which is now angled at about 15 degrees into the gearbox.

Typically an angled drive shaft costs reduces the power transmitted to the wheels so this will have been an area of focus for the gearbox engineering team.

Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso, Barcelona, 2011

Toro Rosso have taken a different approach to Williams by creating a double floor. Effectively the sidepods are raised above the floor creating an incredibly deep undercut. This allows air to channel in a gap between the sidepods and floor with the intention to drive better quality air over the diffuser.

The challenge with this approach is that, unlike the Williams design, the car’s centre of gravity is raised, which compromises handling.

Rear wings and Pirelli tyres

Along with innovation from the teams there are a host of other factors that will affect the racing in 2011. The two most significant are the Drag Reduction System (moveable rear wing) and the Pirelli tyres. There are mixed views on how both of these will affect the races.

Expect the rules on the rear wings to be conservative in the early races. The device can only be used once per lap in a designated area, which is likely to be a maximum of 600m in length.

The rules are reasonably fluid as the FIA has reserved the right to tweak the application of the moveable wing after the first four races – expect the FIA to make use of this power.

The new tyres are an altogether different matter. Evidence from the first few tests suggest that the tyres are 1.5-2s slower than the Bridgestones.

That isn’t surprising: Bridgestone was in the sport for nearly two decades and was involved in tyre wars with both Goodyear and Michelin.

The construction of the Pirellis is far stiffer and getting heat into the tyres is harder. As a result wear is rapid and the tyres are quickly wearing out. They are also producing a lot more marbles, which could have consequences for overtaking.

At this time of year we inevitably have more questions than answers about the cars. Bring on Melbourne!

2011 F1 season preview

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Images © Pirelli, Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari spa, Pirelli,, Pirelli, Williams/LAT, Pirelli

44 comments on “Pre-season technical review”

  1. As much as I applauded McLaren taking a radical approach, last season showed that having a highly-optimised car isn’t always a good thing. The relative lack of mechanical grip really hurt McLaren last year, especially considering the trade-off didn’t result in having the greatest aero performance.

    I wonder if/somewhat hope there will be an MP4-26B that is a back-to-basics design. If they can’t work the car out over the fly-aways, a “diagonal” approach to development might be as beneficial as it will be painful.

    1. I have read on other sites that this years car, althoughnot great, is no where near as bad as the 2009 one. Although there is a lack of downforce, the car handles ok and is nicely balanced, looks fairly steady. Which points to it being off the pace and lacking downforce but not necessarily flawed to its core. The idea being that they could optimise the car over the season without having to resort to any painful b-spec car.

      1. I just worry that like last year’s car mechanical grip is being thrown away in the name of downforce. What I don’t get is that whilst external observers have said it looks like it struggles with traction, the drivers have indeed said it handles very well.

    2. It’s unlikely there will be a b-spec due to the homologation rules that are currently in effect. Personally, I don’t like them, but the teams agreed to them, so we are stuck with them until at least 2013 when the new specifications come out.

      1. Well surely there are still lots of things they can do, like tweaking the suspension to change the wheelbase, changing the sidepods, etc.

  2. Great article John, thanks very much.
    I fully agree with your very animated picture of how McLaren must have been brainstorming to come up with something special. I am very curious, weather the results are better balanced and will be the road to go for them.

    Red Bull and Ferrari improved on very solid (to say the least) cars from last year. Seems both will be having exhausts much alike.

    1. +1. Lewis himself said about last year’s car that sometimes he was driving on three wheels, so I’m curious what’s next. At the start of the day, the media informed that Ferrari are up with next series of improvements, read “blowing exhausts under the floor through a 5cm opening in the outer part of the diffuser.”

    2. I fully agree with your very animated picture of how McLaren must have been brainstorming to come up with something special.

      Agreed. Sounds pretty accurate.

      Great article as usual John.

  3. excellent review. i can’t wait for the season to start and for these cars to race!

  4. I’ll look at this later when I can concentrate, looks good so far though!

  5. Any chance someone can do/link to some diagrams? It’s hard to visualise this stuff!

  6. bleeps_and_tweaks
    8th March 2011, 14:08

    Button just pulled out a series of laps in the 01:22’s in Barcelona, only 0.5s away from Webber in the RB7 and 0.3 slower than Massa’s best a couple of weeks ago.

    Maybe the slating of the MP4-26 is a bit premature? Although for a team like Mclaren they shouldn’t be 0.5-1.0s behind at the start of a season.

    The testing season is so interesting this year, but pointless for making Quali pace predictions.

    1. What in this article do you consider “slating”?

      1. bleeps_and_tweaks
        8th March 2011, 19:52

        Keith, I wasn’t referring to this article in particular, and don’t believe I made such a statement. Although the tone of the article doesn’t exactly paint a positive picture of the designers at Mclaren.

        I was referring to the general chatter that seems to be on here and other F1 sites, along with the comments from several pundits regarding how poor the MP4-26 appears to be whilst out on track. A quick look at the new BBC F1 season preview video is a good place to start.

        My previous comment is already out of date now anyway, as Perez popped up with a 01:21 at the end of testing today, but his time was ruled out for cutting a chicane. However, even if we add a second or so on for that chicane, the performance of the Sauber on what appeared to be a qualifying run indicates that the vast majority of teams will still have performance left in the car that will only really be unleashed in Qualy for Australia.

  7. “Damn those Brawn boys … next year we are going to product the biggest and most powerful double diffuser in the galaxy

    you really make me laugh! :D

    1. “To beat Red Bull we need to come up with the craziest exhaust system and a wacky idea to optimise airflow to the rear wing.”

      either! :P

  8. I still think that Mclaren are slightly sandbagging.

    1. jsw11984 (@jarred-walmsley)
      8th March 2011, 19:27

      I would agree but why would they sandbag this much and this late?

      1. Well if it’s true, it’s because their car is so radical. They don’t want others to copy it.

    2. I don’t think they are sandbagging at their will. They just cannot pull full potential due to limited mileage.

  9. To beat Red Bull we need to come up with the craziest exhaust system and a wacky idea to optimise airflow to the rear wing.”

    Sadly this is probably not too far removed from the truth; the U-shaped sidepods and radical exhaust seem like the desperate measures of a team increasingly losing its way.

    They don’t seem to have a coherent strategy for implementing the exhaust and if u-shaped sidepods are really the best aero solution why are they the only team to be running them?

    Alonso lobbied for the 2007 car to be a pragmatic concept and that was the last pace-setting car they built. Looks like Ferrari are now successfully following that same philosophy.

    If only Mclaren’s arrogance would have allowed them to just develop the 2010 car. At least they can console themselves with the fact that the launch made a few headlines.

    1. This. This all the way, McLaren do pragmatic well, it’s what there set up for. The design department needs someone new, it’s enourmous potential is being wasted, an key men are going to start leaving soon.

      I just don’t know what to say, they could be in for a big fall.

  10. dyslexicbunny
    8th March 2011, 15:22

    Great writeup John. I think Renault, Williams, and Toro Rosso’s design choices are much more interesting than anyone elses.

    I fear McLaren will spend much of the season sucking wind trying to catch Ferrari and Red Bull. It should eventually happen as I don’t think anyone can match McLaren’s development pace, but it will be too little too late.

    If Ferrari can consistently challenge Red Bull, the season should be interesting. Otherwise, it’s going to be just as dull as the first half of 2009. But who knows. Two and a half weeks to go.

  11. Personally I feel real sorry for journalists in winter testing…The problem is they cant write ”the truth is i dunno, wait till Melbourne”

    Lets be honest here, with so many variables the only way you can really gauge team performance is from Driver/team comments and run consistency and I bet even there way off the mark in a lot of cases. Inevitably their then forced into making decisions based on speculation.

    Here’s my speculation, I don’t know where John Beamer got his from

    Red Bull-Renault 1m22.544s
    Ferrari 1m22.625s
    McLaren-Mercedes 1m22.910s
    Mercedes 1m23.168s
    Renault 1m23.463s
    Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m23.519s
    Williams-Cosworth 1m24.008s

    1. Nah i’d say the Renaults faster than mercedes for sure, maybe faster than the McLaren!

  12. Great article. I always enjoy when you do these technical stories.

  13. Brilliant article! Loving the part on Mclaren being followers and not pioneers, just like most mid-pack teams. I have had the exact same thoughts ( “they did that, now we do that, but BETTER, but only that…” )

  14. Williams always blow hot in testing and i seriously doubt Renaults ability with their driver line up.

    Mclaren are certainly not the team they were under Dennis and Whitmarsh may well find his position under scrutiny if this year flops. Lewis will certainly scrutinise it and as he doesnt seem the type to hang around F1 forever, he may be eyeing Red Bull for 2011.

    The last car i remember being so different from the pack was the low slung Brabham designed by Gordon Murray. It sucked, and not in a downforce way.

    Very worrying times for Mclaren, maybe they should stop being so pally

  15. er 2012

    Dam there being no edit key!)

  16. Ralph Schumacher
    8th March 2011, 17:57

    are people aware that TESTING is not equal to QUALIFYING. I’ve heard McLaren bashing left right and centre and i’m sick of it. Jenson Posted the 2nd fastest time having have completed 77 or so laps on the day. The team is slowly gaining mileage and data. I believ in 2.5 weeks, some people are going to be eating their words when Hamilton qualifies on the front row.

    Btw, John, in your McLaren bashing piece, u say the new tires take time to heat up. I thought it was the opposite situation as the new tires heat up much faster in comparison to the bridgestones

    1. As a McLaren fan I didn’t think that was bashing at all i’d say it was fair!

    2. I’ve heard McLaren bashing left right and centre and i’m sick of it.

      I think it’s a ridiculous exaggeration to call this article “bashing”. What exactly in it are you objecting to?

      And I think Button will take your bet about where Hamilton qualifies: Button says Red Bull and Ferrari are out of reach

    3. I’ve heard McLaren bashing left right and centre

      Please add top and bottom. This year even HRT will beat them. And my granny in a moped.

      1. You know, as a fairly hard core McLaren fan this article just makes me sad. Not because it’s biased eer eer bashing? anything, but because it’s just feels painfully true.

        McLaren don’t seem to get it, at all, they have such talented designers, such fantastic facilaties, such incredible output. An such poor POOR concepts. For crying out loud, McLaren can do conservative better then anyone with their rate of development. Was this not prooved in 08? What really is their problem? Maybe it was the conservatism of the first year but bleedin bejeezus I hope they learn there lesson this time.


        1. The page could use a few extra inches ;)

  17. Nice article…quite different from what Sergio Rinland had written.
    To think that McLaren engineers were just trying to borrow ideas from others will be a bit unfair to them.

    As a Ferrari fan I don’t mind a conservative approach if it is a good base to build upon through the year. I am hoping that they will be up to pace from the beginning instead of chasing the RB.

  18. Brilliant article as usual, although some visualisations would make it a tad easier for those who call the humanities rather than numbers their home! :)

    I really hope Ferrari will be able to hold Red Bull in check. Also, I hope the Williams ends up being reasonably competitive.

    As a fan I’m a bit disappointed thus far though. McLaren seems to be struggling and Kubica won’t be driving what might be the third fastest car on the grid – he was only once in that position and boy did he fly.

  19. i think its pretty obvious from Mclarens body language and the way they ve phrased things that they are very concerned. In fact Button has said today he is pessimistic about their chances? is that bad mouthing as well?

    You have to take your fanboy hat off and look at it objectively. Its not football, you dont have to blindly insist your team can beat anyone despite evidence to the contrary.

    1. It’s not football, you don’t have to blindly insist your team can beat anyone despite evidence to the contrary.

      I might put that in huge capital letters at the top of the site…

      1. Please do!

        F1 deserves better than fanboy antics.

  20. Excellent article John!
    Interesting and enjoyable to read.

  21. I find it interesting that he makes no mention of technical changes to the Merc…ie. nothing notable? The only mention Merc gets is for him to say they will be with Mac behind Red Bull, Ferrari, Renault, and Williams.

    In general if Mac is starting behind, I believe they at least have the potential to be among the best ‘improvers’ as the season goes along.

  22. i’d have to agree with most people on here. Mclaren are definitely the best team. There’s no two ways about it.

    Since I’ve been watching (94) there have been a few blips, namely brawn, Renault, Ferrari, benneton, and Williams championship years, but overall the mclaren is always the fastest and they deserve to win every year. I’m not sure if I can count 98/99 though as they were designed by the red bull engineer so it’s bit like cheating.

    Also Ferrari are one of the worst teams ever. I can still picture Berger and alesi driving round and they are so slow. They’ve lucked in to a couple of championships since then when mclaren have stumbled but no more than that.

    I’m just glad that mclaren have always been dominate and will always be. I couldn’t cope with a sport where there was a cycle and gems come good/drop off every few years.

    And the brawn story, built on one of possibly the best foundations ever. Bar went 3rd in the champ with button. They had a couple of years with hondawhere it didn’t work out but still a great car.

    In case you hadn’t realised I’ll distill the above into a sentence. F1 is a sport with changing goalposts, no team is the best, no team the worst it changes every year, teams come and go.

    I’m a mclarenfollower, and have always been a button follower, I like Hamilton, and don’t particularly like alonso, These all change though and what it comes down to is I’m an f1 fan

  23. Great technical review, the vast majority of it makes sense to me! I just treat my head like CFD and it’s ok ;)

    Regardless of the outcome, it’s going to be interesting to see what innovations are actually beneficial and which are failures. I’d like to think that McLaren’s U-sidepod idea offered good value for money relating to actual performance but doesn’t seem to have gone that way thus far.

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