McLaren may have started this season at the bottom of the constructors’ standings, but they already know what their major problems are for 2023 and believe they already have comprehensive solutions lined up.
McLaren team principal Andrea Stella and technical director James Key spoke during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend about why, despite starting the season off the pace and suffering reliability problems with the new MCL60, there remains a positive mood at McLaren in the early phase of the 2023 season.
The punishing rule change realised a little too late
Last summer, the FIA decided to tackle the porpoising problem impacting several Formula 1 teams by raising the minimum floor edge height for 2023. While a 25mm cut was originally planned, a compromise reduction of 15mm was eventually agreed with the teams, who set to work on adjusting the designs of their cars for the upcoming season around the new ride height.
Fast-forward to now and while McLaren have addressed some weaknesses of the MCL60’s predecessor – creating “a much better-balanced car” with “mechanical updates [that] seem to be working” too according to Key – the team admits the 15mm rule change proved a greater complication than they foresaw.
“[15mm] sounds very small, but these floors are huge and incredibly sensitive,” Key explained. “You look at how much downforce they generate, it’s massive. So when we did that on our car, it actually gave us a much bigger loss than anticipated. It seems to have affected different teams in different ways, and to a certain extent it seems to be related to the floor edge geometry that you were running at the time.”
McLaren’s floor design last year was broadly one of two differing philosophies among the teams. “There were two camps beginning to develop, one which we are in, one which probably the majority of teams are in,” Key explained.
The impact of the rules change forced McLaren to make a significant change late in the design process for its new car. “When we took that [15mm] step, it was a really big knock for us. And then trying to recover with what we knew at the time, and this was probably September time, we were thinking ‘this is not working, actually, we’ve got to change direction entirely with these geometries’. Which is a big change, because they’re very big projects and very complex projects.
“The timing of the regulation and the fact that we took a particularly large hit, and then it clearly wasn’t going to come back easily, meant we had to change direction quite late. It wasn’t like we were dawdling around and thinking what to do and ‘oh, actually what if we do this?’. It was sort of forced upon us by recognition that the new regs weren’t going to recover [the lost downforce] with what we knew from last year.
“That led to a completely refreshed and revamped approach to that area of the car. And because it takes a while to develop these things, we tried to get it for race one, [but] it wasn’t mature enough. It performed a bit better but with these floors, you’d better maintain stability, [have] good correlation, everything else to guarantee it’s going to work. And it was a little bit risky for race one.”
Key said it was “frustrating” for the team to realise the impact of the rule change so late into their design process. “Had the reg been earlier, or had we clocked the fact that actually you need to do a different thing with this, four weeks earlier, we wouldn’t be talking about it right now,” he said. “It’s a bit of a shame.”
Compared to other teams that have lost ground on last year with their 2023 designs, Key said the lack of performance for McLaren can be pinpointed to the rule change because the team had “a floor philosophy rather than a bodywork philosophy” it had pursued. The reason its direction on bodywork was not as firmly set in stone was because “it wasn’t obvious” which philosophy was best due to very different designs proving competitive in 2022.
“We settled on a direction with the Singapore update last year. And sadly the floor edge didn’t work out with the new reg, but fundamentally that’s what we used as a springboard into this year. The bodywork perspective is very much a generational kind of evolution on that. I’m glad we made the change in that respect.”
While there has been a backwards step because of the rule change, and then delayed progress in recovering downforce due to design adjustments, there is now potentially a higher development ceiling for McLaren having made the change. And without the rule change, there would have been nothing to prompt McLaren into pursuing something different.
“Certainly there would have been a propensity to continue with what you know, because that’s kind of everything you’ve got in your armoury at that point,” Key said. “I think it has actually unlocked a few new avenues to us, which does give us more potential.
“I think what’s been really good, and the team has done a fantastic job with this under a lot of pressure, is that we’ve looked at how we go about such developments in quite a fresh way. It’s not experimental, but it’s definitely a new approach for us with how we’re going about this, and it seems to be working very effectively.”
The updates to the MCL60 to address the problem are due to begin arriving from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the end of next month and further parts will arrive for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. Key is hopeful this will unlock more performance from a car which was almost quick enough to reach Q3 in Bahrain.
“Let’s see how the results on track come as the new iterations appear. But I think it’s actually opened our eyes to a lot of new possibilities. So in a sense, it is a blessing in disguise in that respect.”
The deficit that will soon become an advantage
While the problem which compromised the design of this year’s car was a specific consequence of a recent rules change, McLaren’s development capacity has long been constrained by its wind tunnel arrangements. The tunnel at its Woking base was completed over two decades ago, but for much of that time the team has used Toyota’s superior model in Cologne.
Following the arrival of Zak Brown in charge of McLaren’s racing operation, and the hiring of Stella’s predecessor Andreas Seidl who has since moved to Sauber, McLaren began work on a new tunnel at its base. The route to getting it ready to use has been a long one and its reliance on a facility almost 600 kilometres away in the meantime has inevitably forced compromises and delays on McLaren’s operation.
“It’s a deficit for many reasons, because we spend millions to rent it,” Stella acknowledged. “It’s a good wind tunnel but F1 has some specificity in terms of the methodologies you need, which are very F1-specific,” said Stella. “We didn’t want to invest in these methodologies in a wind tunnel that we were not going to use for the future. So we are behind in terms of methodologies as well.”
The compromises are also practical, Stella noted. “When we have a design, we produce the parts for the model, then there’s a van that drives to Cologne, and we lose a couple of days. F1 is such a fast business, you can’t have this way of operating.
“I don’t want to mention the wind tunnel too much because it sounds like an excuse, but it’s definitely a deficit in the quality of the development and in the speed of the development because of all these slow operations that you have to do to just get the parts tested in the wind tunnel.”
McLaren is in the final stages of verifying its new tunnel. This is being done by correlating data from the Toyota tunnel and their new one with models of their older cars. Stella wants models for its current car designs to be developed at home by June.
“There’s a process of calibration of the wind tunnel, installation of the methodologies like the ones you use to measure the pressure, to measure the velocity field, to measure the forces,” Stella explained. “All this takes some weeks. That’s where we are in terms of the commissioning phase of the wind tunnel.
“So hardware-wise, if it exists, the fan goes on. It’s really nice from my office because I can hear it, and it’s so reassuring, like ‘wow, we are making progress’. But we can’t yet put the model in there for development.”
On the track, the team which was only narrowly beaten to fourth place in the constructors championship last year began the new season in less competitive shape – a situation it flagged at the launch of its new car. Fixes for both its long-running and unexpected problems are close, but as the team’s rivals press their advantage in the opening races, McLaren will be eager to begin exploiting the benefits its “better infrastructure” should bring.
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