Late front wing development on 2012’s fastest car

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The McLaren MP4-27 was the fastest car of 2012.

And with little changes in the F1 rules for 2013, they continued developing it until the closing stages of the season. The McLaren sported a revised front wing as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button ended the season with a win apiece.

A Formula One car’s front wing is responsible for producing about 40% of total downforce. However, downforce-generation is only part of the job description for a front wing.

A second and equally important function is to condition and control the air flow to the rest of the car – particularly to the floor and diffuser. It is no surprise then that teams spend a considerable proportion of their resources tinkering with the front wing and bring updates to almost every race.

Given the role in flow conditioning it plays, front wings are very specific to particular cars. In 2011 McLaren, struggling with their octopus exhaust, bolted on Red Bull’s solution and found 1.5s a lap. The same wouldn’t be possible with the front wing – putting Red Bull’s front wing on the McLaren would likely see the silver car lose a chunk of lap time.

Therefore front wing design tends to be evolutionary. Fins will be added to end plates or the cascade design will be slightly altered as teams better understand the flow regime coming off the front wing. Without close-up photographs it is often very hard for observers to distinguish differences in sequential front wing designs.

McLaren is a good example of a team that has evolved its front wing design. The first illustration (above) shows a picture of the McLaren nose and front wing from Silverstone. There are a few things worth noting.

First McLaren has a three-element design – look for the two flaps behind the main plane. Second, the device sports two cascades – an outer cascade (see blue circle) and an inner cascade (yellow circle).

Also note the ‘folds’ in the main plane (green circle) that capture and channel vortices aft of the device. Interestingly, this design is unique to McLaren. Many teams choose to follow the Red Bull school of front wings, which have multiple stacked cascade elements with fins and fences to micro-direct the airflow as needed. By contrast the McLaren wing is simpler.

McLaren first introduced this basic, three-element two-cascade wing concept, in the 2010 Singapore Grand Prix and has spent the over two years refining the design. To the surprise of many observers McLaren launched a new front wing concept for final two races of the season – see illustration two below.

Essentially the inner cascade has been replaced by a vertical fin (see yellow circle). Although this is hardly revolutionary it does represent a philosophical shift in the how to manage airflow from the mid-part of the wing.

The old inner cascade creates a little bit of downforce and a vortex on its inner tip, with the presumed purpose of attaching airflow at the front of the floor. The new vertical fin dispenses with the vortex and is designed to ‘massage’ the flow to the sidepods. Interestingly these vertical fins were pioneered by Lotus-Renault earlier in the 2012 season.

In addition there are other small changes to the end plate which are hard to pick up in the drawing. The outermost rearwards part of the endplate is more rounded (green circle), which should result in a more consistent vortex to manage the flow to the front tyres.

Also the folds in the main plane have been reshaped, again to better manage and control vortices. These secondary details are simply fine tuning part of the existing concept rather a radical rethink of the front wing.

Given McLaren won the last two races of the season it is likely the new front wing will be carried over to 2013. As it seems to be working for both Lotus and McLaren the obvious question now is whether other teams will try to imitate it.

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Image © McLaren/Hoch Zwei

29 comments on “Late front wing development on 2012’s fastest car”

  1. Fantastic article. I will keep my watchful eyes on the front wing designs of the 2013 cars. I cannot wait for the presentations.

    While of course one can identify a number of new techs on its own to watch out for, such as the DRD, but I would very very welcome an article on the general late season technological development trends the teams pursued in 2012 and which should be looked closely in early 2013.

    Great piece of work again, thanks.

    1. @atticus-2 The cars rarely have front wings mounted that are made to be raced during the presentations though, right? Don’t they usually fit some leftover and simple front wing on there to prevent other teams from getting ideas?

      1. @roald Yes, indeed, they are increasingly doing that. So getting pics and videos from tests will be a more appropriate measure of the teams preparations in terms of developments, not just times.

        On another note, I wonder if the increasing emphasis on directing airflow to the rear of the car inevitably resulted in a lower downforce generation ability on the front wing itself using the usual tools. In other words, if this is more or less a zero-sum game. If so, I wonder if the Gurney flaps are there to counter this issue somewhat and get some front wing downforce back. I don’t recall seeing them this lot earlier – now, we saw some on the Williams in India (although that front wing was eventually scrapped in favour of the Barcelona-version), another team I can’t remember right now, and now I see some on the Austin & Interlagos McLaren front wing along with a greater emphasis on directing airflow to the rear of the car.

        1. @atticus-2 it’s slightly counterintuitive. The job of some of the rear downforce-producers is to lower pressure and speed up airflow. That is in fact how some of them generate their downforce.

          So what happens is, in fact, as the rear sucks more air from the front, it sucks more air over the front wings, promoting better front wing downforce. It was one of the strengths of the sidepod tunnels on the RB8 – As the diffuser neared the ground it sucked air through the tunnels harder – which comes from the front. More air gets sucked faster over the front wing, and more front downforce gets generated.

        2. @atticus-2 I forgot to add. Front downforce is a lot easier to come by than rear downforce – so this is generally a non-issue. Remember that in 2010 the front wings were countering masses of rear downforce with double diffusers and exhausts blowing into diffusers, and are basically the same design nowadays.

          1. I see and thanks for the explanations. So the McLaren (and earlier, the Lotus) solutions are effectively win-win scenarios?

          2. @atticus-2 that depends on what the downstream effects on the airflow are, not on the front wing itself.

          3. At this very moment Lewis Hamilton is explaining all the secrets of MacLarens speed to the previously mystified Mercedes team designers, oh the perfidy, he should have his citizenship revoked.

    2. Indeed, nice article.
      What’s really nice about this front wing is its seamless integration – while it is evolutionary, it helped Mclaren to stay on top of the time sheets.

      Next I very much value the fact that the wing has been tested in the late YDT in Abu Dhabi, which I have detailed in my blog, and the wing made appearance after that.

      The front wing itself becomes more simpler, but that doesn’t mean less effective – to people that develop, that usually means more predictability and less variables to work with.
      Finally, the old curvatures below the main plane which used to be 45 degrees angled are now lot more smoother towards ellipse profile, which I suppose is there to help the Y250 vortex formations.

      Again, good article and nice illustrations.

  2. I being a Fernado and eventually a Ferrari fan, am most impressed by teams like Mclaen and Lotus and unimpressed by Ferrari. Ferrai copy whatwver Red Bull brings. Even their front wing design is similar to theirs. On the other hand, Macca and Lotus have diferent designes and they are faster than Ferrari.

    last year too, Ferrari played around with their engine cover on top of the gear box. They made it just like red Bull’s but it did not work. FOr a team as big as Ferrai, they lack innovation.

    1. It’s a well-worn debate, but Ferrari’s entire philosophy has always been innovation through testing – try it on track – if it doesn’t work, iterate it until it does. They’re only just working themselves out of this pit they were dumped in with the testing ban and their lacking development tools (poor wind tunnel, obvious lesser CFD) are starting to show, hence the wind-tunnel upgrade program, which is about getting it right, not just throwing money at it.

      1. @optimaximal, and don’t forget Ferraris historic emphasis on having a better engine to compensate for any chassis weakness.

    2. Lotus faster than ferrari?? what a joke.

      1. Lotus had a faster car than Ferrari this year on pure one-lap pace at least:

        Who had the fastest car? Performance data analysed

    3. Stop undermine ferrari, every team has different approach and design. I seriously like the F2012, a great racing car although not great in quali, but its sublime straightline speed, strong pace, and great launch compensate more than that.

      1. If only RBR could put that great launch in Webbers car.

    4. F2012 is such a great racing car. People that short sightened like to judge the car based on it qualifying performance.

      Sublime straightline pace, great launch, strong race pace in any condition.

      A great attacking and defending car.

    5. As long as they cant get simple things like front wings deflecting air to the correct places, I doubt very much that they would have the confidence to do anything considered innovative.

    6. @gill I find it very interesting that you can turn a piece about McLaren’s front wing into the claim that Ferrari had the slowest car. Fascinating

    7. I remember Ferrari’s attempt at copying the Red Bull’s flexi-wing in 2011 – the thing was vibrating wildly in Abu Dhabi, seemingly almost out of control!

      1. Wasn’t it at India that Massa’s wing was flapping about on the straight?

  3. I would have thought that the vortex generated from the inner cascade on the previous iteration of the wing was designed to interact with the downstream vortex. It would be interesting to know how its omission affects the rest of the car. Marussia seem to have a similar concept wing on their car, introduced before the McLaren I think.

  4. I remember reading that the McLaren wing is one of the best at producing absolute front downforce which worked well with the EBD’s of last year and throughout this season they’ve just been trying to make the front wing more efficient in downforce-to-drag

    1. It is possible that the front wing of the car last year produced a lot of absolute downforce, but not enough to adequately balance the car with the effect of the EBD. This is why they had the snow-plough, which was in effect a very inefficient rebalancing tool. The 2011 car was an amalgamation of several concepts which were not fully synchronised.

  5. Ugh. Everytime I read something like this about a successful design or development for Mclaren, I just cant help but wonder once again how the hell did they manage to finish third with the best car…

  6. Interesting article. I think a mention of what Sam Michael said about the front wing would’ve been worth a mention though as it goes some way to proving one of the main points made. In an interview with the BBC I think, Michael said that the new wing was introduced in order to rebalance the car, rather than bolting on downforce. This makes sense with the analysis of ‘massaging the airflow’ and the fact that removing the inner cascade would have caused some loss of downforce.

    On a totally different point; it’s still so frustrating and disappointing, even after the end of the season, that with their fastest car for some time, Mclaren managed to squander a golden opportunity for both championships. I think the tally of points lost for Lewis due to reliability or systems errors (e.g. Barcelona) was around 80! Shocking.

  7. McLaren have had the major asset of having front wing that already produces an ample amount of downforce at the start of the year. This meant that they could focus on controlling the airflow leaving the wing using the many vortices it produces and make it more aerodynamically efficient. Removing the cascade that was used also by Red Bull and Mercedes can be a part of that, though I do not completely understand the reasoning behind this.

    Nice to see a technological article again on F1F!

  8. What I find very interesting is to compare early 2009 front wing designs with the new ones, Toyota and Renault in particular had very crude designs but the Brawn for instance, already showed this complex designs, no wonder they dominated.

    1. And in a way that also explains why now Mercedes have kept a variation on that same design until now, I guess.

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