How do you solve a problem like McLaren?

How do you solve a problem like McLaren?

McLaren are no stranger to adversity, but is it all doom and gloom? William Tyson investigates.

Sam Michael and Eric Boullier

Before we begin dissecting the latest instalment of McLaren’s troubles, let’s cast our minds back to end of 2012: arguably the then-rocket-red clad Woking outfit had the fastest car in Formula 1 for the majority of the year. Despite this, operational errors cost them dearly in the early part of the season, and again in the latter stages when glitches simply can’t be made when challenging for a world title. I highlight in particular the tactical mistakes and pitstop blunders in Malaysia and Bahrain, and the under-fueling saga during qualifying in Spain. Perhaps they were quite unfortunate in most instances, given that both drivers – Lewis Hamilton especially – had numerous retirements and car problems. Coupled with the above, McLaren’s points tally was set back by some margin as the season drew to a close.

Going into 2013, nothing much was changing on a technical level, yet McLaren chose to design the car from scratch from about June onwards – a relatively short period of time. I genuinely believe that had it not been for the dramatic changes to the tyres, the MP4-28 would have been a good car with the steep development curve that the team boasted of during the car’s launch in January. F1 cars have highly sensitive aerodynamics and Pirelli’s soft sidewall rubber affected the fundamental aero structures passing over the car under load, causing aerodynamic instability and inconsistency. These are both key areas of a successful car, rather than peak downforce in itself.

Despite the team being renowned for outstanding development, there was a very slim chance of recovering from such a scenario as the car was flawed right from the get-go. Take 2009 as a comparison and you realise why this is the case. The MP4-24 lacked downforce although its fundamental characteristics were quite decent, as proved by Hamilton’s charge to third – later disqualified – in the season opener. Six months later and they were back on the podium because they had the resources to pile on the updates. 2013 was an entirely different kettle of fish because the whole design philosophy revolved around a different tyre model. This was evident when bits that turned up during testing and the first few flyaway races, that were then shelved for mid-season, started turning up towards the end of the year when the tyres were subsequently changed after the Silverstone disaster. Imagine the chaos going on back at base as the team were trying to get on top of a formula they were always chasing.

The MP4-29 looked positive in testing but has since fallen behind

The MP4-29 looked positive in testing but has since fallen behind

There is a likelihood that this confusion and rush to deliver parts – to live up to the McLaren name of being fast developers – impinged on their 2014 campaign. By their own admission, McLaren reluctantly threw in the towel early doors to concentrate on 2014, but perhaps this decision should have been made sooner to really refocus the staff and hit the ground running. This appeared to be the case in Australia with a double podium finish although they were aware that the opposition were closing in fast even during testing, which was then proven from Malaysia onwards.

F1 never stands still, every team knows this and McLaren are no different. Despite their recent lack of pace, all is not lost for the team this season as a lot of their woes are down to factors beyond their control, as I shall now explain.

What are the problems with the MP4-29 and how can McLaren fix them?

Unlike every other Mercedes-powered team, McLaren are partners with oil and gas company Exxon Mobil Corporation. This is the parent company of brands such as Esso and Mobil 1, who both provide McLaren with race fuel and high performance lubricants. Whereas Mercedes, Williams and Force India all use Petronas products to propel their cars, McLaren have an exclusive deal with these other companies who have been providing the team for the past 19 years, 20 this year. This continued collaboration is incredibly important for the team as McLaren will part ways with Mercedes at the end of this year for Honda power in 2015, with Esso and Mobil 1 coming across with them.

There has been a strong suggestion that McLaren’s lack of performance primarily stems from the performance of their fuel in combination with the new power unit. Petronas recently announced that it took about 900 days from initial formulas to final product to produce their fuel and lubricants for just the 2014 season. Such are the developments that have been made in this area, the company also claim to extract up to 30% more power out of every drop of fuel – an incredible engineering achievement. The top end speed of the MP4-29 is pretty good, but it is the way it gets there that is the problem.

The other Mercedes-powered teams, Mercedes in particular, utilise the fuel for acceleration before engaging the MGU-K’s maximum power output as it approaches 170mph onwards. This is much more efficient than pumping in more fuel as the fuel flow limit kicks in at 10,500rpm, leaving little point in burning extra fuel at high revs for no performance gain. And they can do this because Petronas have provided an incredibly brilliant product. In contrast, Esso’s fuel only allows for a more linear use which caps McLaren’s fuel efficiency as well as their acceleration. Esso and Mobil 1 need to get their heads down and catch up to the Petronas group. It isn’t impossible but they could well be some 300 days behind…

Aside from fuel, pure downforce appears to be a fundamental problem, more specifically generating enough tyre temperature at high speed. This could be a negative impact caused by the ‘mushroom’ rear suspension geometry, although a few mechanical changes should go some way to resolving the temperature problems. Perhaps the team were mindful of last year’s tyre mishaps so went a bit more conservative on both aerodynamic and mechanical design fronts. Expect the team to push on in both these areas now.

The Mercedes power unit runs a log-style manifold, rather than a conventional multi-tube header layout, which feeds each individual cylinder’s exhaust into one larger diameter pipe at various stages along its length. During the original design, the power unit featured the aforementioned conventional layout, a feature that McLaren took into consideration during their design process by producing larger sidepods. However when the team turned up for winter testing the new log manifold was all ready to go. This effectively left a space the size of a small suitcase in the sidepod, presenting a large surface area to the airflow that wraps around the bodywork through the ‘Coke-bottle’ region of the car. Whilst Force India have already made adjustments to their car, McLaren will aim to trim their sidepods down for Spain.

Will Ron Dennis bring success back to the team?

Ron Dennis will steady the ship in order to pursue long term ambitions

Ron Dennis will steady the ship in order to pursue long term ambitions

Other than a technical perspective, the prospect of a new title sponsor remains but a question at the moment with rumours that a deal is no where near done. This is a worrying period of time for the team who, despite their more than sufficient existing funds, rely heavily on sponsorship, unlike the works teams of Ferrari and Mercedes, and arguably Red Bull, too. And just where are those sponsors on the MP4-29? Indeed…

With Ron Dennis back at the helm of things, it won’t be too long before the champagne reaches the region of western Surrey once more. Having Eric Boullier overseeing the operational side of things will also help massively as the team will have been rattled by the processes that were carried through last year when decision making was imperative. Dennis and Boullier should also attract new sponsorship as both men are proven quantities in the motorsport industry. Give it another year and we might well be wondering why we were making such a fuss.

Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and McLaren Mercedes

William Tyson

William Tyson

William Tyson has been writing about the technical side of Formula 1 since February 2013. After joining the Richland F1 team for 2014 he has continued to establish himself as a more rounded technical analyst whilst maintaining a healthy following on his blog.