#F1 Forensics: McLaren 2013 – Where did the pace go?

This F1 Forensics is brought to thejudge13 readers in partnership with SomersF1, Like most of us, Matthew Somerfield has a day job and his is being the manager of a car & van rental company in the Isle of Wight.

His passion is to try and bring us non-techies closer to F1 by bridging the gap between the full blown engineering publications and the simplicity of much that is provided by TV.

Some of you were asking for this kind of forensic look at the FRIC system a couple of days ago – so by popular demand, here it is. Over to Somers…

McLaren 2013 – Where did the pace go?

McLaren’s stuttering start to their 2013 campaign is likely to take a turn for the better in the second half of the season.  But why have the team struggled so badly so far and is it now too late to do anything about it?

Well lets first understand why McLaren find themselves in the situation…

Having finished their 2012 campaign in strong form fans of the Woking based outfit had no reason to believe their team wouldn’t be challenging for victories early in the season.

McLaren-MP4-28-reveal_04Having already assessed and acknowledged the plausibility of using Pull Rod Front Suspension late in 2012, no-one was shocked to see it on the MP4-28 at launch.  With Ferrari having had teething issues early into their 2012 campaign with their own front Pull Rod layout it could be argued that was the risk worth the reward? McLaren believed so as they admitted that extracting larger gains from the ethos employed during the design of the MP4-27 would be difficult.

The MP4-27 at stages throughout 2012 was the quickest car but also remained kind on it’s tyres however it often struggled to bring the front tyres up to temperature, a trait which was exacerbated by Jenson’s smoother driving style. This was more of an issue as the season progressed and the other teams closed the gap to McLaren’s early pace resulting in qualifying becoming more essential.

McLaren’s application of Pull Rod Suspension at the front of the car was designed to aid in the phasing in of the front tyres that it’s predecessor lacked as the higher geometry of the Suspension forces more shear load through the tyre, in turn heating it up. This is all well and good until we realise that Pirelli’s change in tyre construction for the start of 2013 meant that the tyres operated differently, the Sidewall was more forgiving and the tyre naturally came up to temperature more easily.

mcla-mp4-28-suspensionNow lets also think about the aerodynamic impact of the tyres, with this more forgiving Sidewall both the tyre itself and the relative position of the suspension components change more dynamically. McLaren have for a number of years now run their cars very stiff, this enables the designers to work more closely with the aerodynamics of the car but makes the car less mechanically compliant.

Part of their problem therefore is that with the suspension being virtually rigid the damping of the cars movements is further expressed through the soft sidewall of the tyres.  This of course has an impact on both the mechanical and aerodynamic principles of the car causing already peak laden airflow area’s to be pushed outside their operating windows.

The use of pull rod suspension was not the only big revision envisaged for the MP4-28 with the team who almost stood alone in their adoption of the lower nose during 2012 yielding to a higher one this season. The car and the thought processes behind these changes are of course to increase the cars potential whether that be initially and/or throughout the course of a season.

McLaren were vocal in their opinion that the MP4-27’s potential had been reached at the end of 2012 and so wholesale changes were required for 2013 to stay with their rivals. The DNA of the car therefore is inherently different with the chassis / bulkhead raised close to the height limit of 625mm rather than the 575mm it’s predecessor ran at. This impacts many area’s of the car but none more so than the area the team were trying to make strides with: The Sidepod’s frontal region.

McLaren started their 2012 season with the ‘Coanda’ exhaust and was swiftly copied by most of the field, realising that more potential could still be unlocked from this the team knew they must exploit the lower frontal section of the Sidepod. The raising of the nose and chassis also leads to an increase in the height of the Sidepod and therefore more surface area that can be used to condition the airflow that leads to the rear of the car. The problem for McLaren however is their plans were scuppered when the scale tyres provided by Pirelli didn’t react in the same way on the car.

The tyres dynamic movements allied by the stiff suspension run by the team meant the additional airflow traveling under the car (due to the raised nose/chassis) was being disturbed by both the tyres and lack of compliance from the suspension. This led to some swift changes by the team in order to try and rectify the deficiencies but these were simply a band aid with the disturbed airflow not only destabilizing the car at the front but having an onward effect on how downforce was generated at the rear of the car.

Formula One Winter Testing, JerezIf I had to mention one thing that McLaren changed that pointed toward this situation the most it would be the team abandoning their 3 tier under chassis turning vanes during pre season testing and replacing them with single element vanes under the nose. The vanes are used to enforce the Y250 region (The area under the nose, 125mm either side of the centreline) and help to set up the airflow to both the Splitter and the frontal region of the Sidepod.

By not only going to a less complex design but also moving the element forward it was an admission that something wasn’t working as first predicted.  Although I have mentioned this throughout my ramblings on twitter, my own blog and such like I was vindicated when McLaren returned to the more complex vanes whilst testing the newer (2012 construction) Pirelli tyres at the Young Drivers Test.

Of course this wasn’t the only change made, with the team needing to rectify the potential losses they expected to gain by the enlarged surface area of the Sidepods undercut.  The re-introduction of Vortex Generators on top of the Sidepod and a re-design of the Sidepods downwash to the exhaust were needed to make the Sidepod operate over a wider speed range and maximise the downforce being generated.

mcl-mp4-28-frontwing © Steve WalkerFurthermore, many people (including myself, albeit perhaps not so vocally) were dismissive about McLaren’s Front Wing ethos with the team still only running a relatively basic 3 tiered flap arrangement. The deltoid shaped wings that are en vogue in F1 today of course create downforce but also serve the purpose of creating more complex flow structures to manage tyre wake.

An F1 car requires balance and so adding more front downforce requires more rear downforce, the older generation front wing was more than capable of creating the required force but doesn’t create the same level of vortices you would see from the likes of a Red Bull front wing.

Even though McLaren seemingly buckled to the pressure from the media and their fans to follow the deltoid route they haven’t fully embraced it with the Front Wing still only using 3 tiers.

Adding additional tiers to the outer portion of the wing like their rivals would require a new ethos and a rethink about how their Endplate is constructed too.  The team currently allow airflow to migrate inbound from the Endplate side aiding in the Wings ability to generate downforce in Yaw whilst the others teams increase the number of tiers to do this job and allow airflow to migrate outbound of the Endplate.

McLaren’s fortunes obviously turned around in Hungary with their car certainly more suited to the Pirelli tyres taken there and which will be used for the rest of the season. Their season is almost certainly over in terms of winning either Championship but I do believe they will now have much more of an effect on who does triumph. Their closest rival (this season) Force India will now find themselves much further pushed by McLaren, whilst Sauber, another team who have struggled this season, should too find life easier from here on in (for many of the same reasons as McLaren).

If you’re a McLaren fan, armed with this news you’d be forgiven for being more optimistic but the team have already suggested that any upgrades for the rest of the season will be circuit specific or be the groundwork for their 2014 challenger.  Although I don’t believe the team are anywhere near challenging for a win, through good strategy and/or tyre management they could however pick up some podium finishes.

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12 responses to “#F1 Forensics: McLaren 2013 – Where did the pace go?

  1. Hi Matthew, thanks for another insightful article. Answers a lot of questions I had regarding McLaren, and many more that I hadn’t thought of! I suppose the best one can really say about this year’s car is that it can’t be as bad as the MP4-18. : )

  2. A lot of it is to do with the sidepod philosophy, although they look similar to 2012 the 2013 pods managed the air much differently. That was their main problem early in the season and they have since made modifications to go back to the 2012 philosophy. However the pull rod suspension doesn’t suit the 2012 design very well so it’s been a bit awkward.

    You’ve spotted some differences in the car and kind of just speculated reasons why they didn’t work or helped the car. I know it’s fun to write about these changes but practically none of these theories have much backing.

    • Guess you’ve got a right to your own opinion but Matt’s been doing this for a while and know his stuff…

      Also, in terms of backing, Whitmarsh himself admitted that the wake over the suspension arms are causing them grief. Also, the coanda exhaust system is very tricky to get right and a lot has to do with how the air flows over the sidepod, which depends on how the air gets there.

    • Owen, nearly everything I have written here points to the way the Sidepods work being the 28’s problem. You cannot however discount other areas fore and aft of that area as contributing to their failings too. Apart from sound reasoning I don’t have access to the exact vehicle modelling, CFD or Wind Tunnels to make further conclusive/empirical proof with which to write these pieces. This is how myself and others that write about the Technical side of the sport have to work (ie at arms length)

  3. Very nice article, Matt, really insightful and one gets to learn quite a lot in it.

    I’m still a sceptic with their whole upheaval of the initial 2012 car just to suit Jenson’s driving. It just doesn’t make sense, the MP4-27 was a race-winning car and they broke it down completely. Red Bull have been running their title-winning car for 3 years and I doubt they completely changed their car around. For sure : they have had to remove the trick-diffuser and put other elements that generate rear downforce, but Adrian Newey probably always kept a certain philosophy in his car.

    Anyway, a team of McLaren’s power and prestige was always bound to improve, so it’s not unsurprising to see their fortunes take a turn for the better by the mid-season point. I personally doubt they’ll compete for podiums, unless there are several retirements for the faster cars. 2014 is going to be a pretty massive over-haul design-wise so anything that’s been working so far might be totally irrelevant next year for all we know.

  4. Sounds to me like they screwed up by going with a hunch – namely that lower suspension c of g and airflow to the back of the car. But Ferrari took a while to integrate it, and they have the ppl that were doing it on the minardi. Sauber did similar with their crushed side pods look – it probably ruined the flow they had off the great car last year. Mclarens expertise was around push rod and stiff sprung – changing that requires relearning everything to do with both areas aerodynamically, a huge job given the big relearn for 2014 design. Going back to 2012 philosophies shows they followed the computers flawed sims (accurate but not complex enough yet?), a bit like marussia. If 2012 outperformed the sim, 2013 underwhelmed the sim, that says that the sim needs to learn more as its not matching real life accurately enough yet, and hints where it is weak/where you still need to develop without CFD use.

    2012 developments were strange indeed for Button, win, unlucky loss, mess up car and get lapped. Something was always wrong when they put a suspension part in upside down at 2013 Jerez test 1 and went way faster than subsequently possible with it the right way in!

    • Indeed CFD and the Wind Tunnel are still only tools that require the correct use and instruction from the engineers. Understanding all the parameters is still an art form and is often lost in the abyss. The car has to operate over a wide speed threshold and without flexible or movable bodywork this remains a challenge of CL (Lift Coefficient). This is essentially why we see the likes of Vortex Generators on the Sidepods as it helps the Sidepod to work over a wider speed range.

      I see after I wrote this piece that Whitmarsh came out saying that the 27 exceeded their expectations at the end of last season. This caused a strange crossover period where their 2012 philosophy was quicker than this years. The 28 however (IMO) has more potential than it’s early season form showed.

      • Fair enough, if the 2012 car has maxed out its potential then we could have had the situation where it was competitive only for the first few flyaway races and then a plateau (effectively falling back) was established. I wonder if the switch to 2012 tyres from now on would favour the 2012 car philosophy.

        Great article, a lot of detail and I can see why they wanted to do the potentially optimal way forwards, although even more challenging now given the lack of track testing to dial everything in.

  5. The new engines for next year are a major change for the sport. I am curious how the engine manufacturers and the teams can plan for the future with so little testing allowed. It may be fine to design a new engine, the principles are well known, but quite another to fit it in a racing car and expect it to be efficient and reliable. Not only that, but there is also going to be a ban on development of the engines. I am not sure when this ban starts, after one year, two years? For how long does the ban last? What if you design a terrible engine that is not competitive? The team might as well withdraw from racing. Or will we end up with one engine manufacturer supplying all the teams?
    I can see the idea is to keep down the costs to the teams. But, I thought one of the reasons for the change was so engine manufacturers could incorporate any innovations into their road car engine designs. Formula 1 racing should be at the pinnacle of design and innovation, leading the way. Freezing development means teams are running, using old technology, and little chance to improve. If this method had been used for railways, we would still be using Stephenson’s Rocket!

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