Sunday, April 10, 2011

Will new McLaren live up to expectations?

Confidence was not in short supply at McLaren as they unveiled their dramatic-looking 2011 Formula 1 car on Friday.

While most teams chose to reflect the austerity of the times by taking the wraps off their new cars in the pit lane at the first pre-season test in Valencia this week, McLaren instead went for a grand reveal in the centre of Berlin.

Mechanics wheeled in a chassis and suspension and attached the wheels and bodywork to the car in front of a crowd of interested spectators in Potsdamer Platz, a public space that sits on the fringe of the old Berlin Wall.

Fortunately, the appearance of the new MP4-26 car justified such a flamboyant approach, its sweeping lines and radical design innovations immediately obvious.

Equally obvious was the expectation the team have invested in the spectacular-looking machine. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button could barely stop themselves smiling as they contemplated the car they both hope will take them to a second drivers' world championship.

Button talked about his "beautiful new baby"; Hamilton of his confidence that McLaren would be more competitive than in 2010 - when they won five races and both men led the championship at various stages of the season.

Hamilton and Button were bullish about their chances this season, and looking at the new car it was easy to see why.

For some time now, there have been rumours that McLaren had pushed the boat out with their new car, and that it would be probably the most innovative of the season. It did not disappoint.

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From the intricately curved front wing back, the new McLaren looks the part. It bristles with innovation - including an extra air intake on the airbox behind the driver, needed to cool the hydraulics and gearbox because the car has been packaged so tightly; L-shaped sidepod openings designed to get more airflow to the rear wing; and a particularly long wheelbase, which helps maximise downforce.

Team principal Martin Whitmarsh, sharing his drivers' optimism, added that there was more to come before the first race of the season in Bahrain on 13 March. "Be warned," he said, "we have not shown you everything," adding that the team had some "fantastic innovations" to come.

"I'm brimming with excitement," Whitmarsh said, "I think it's a fantastic car."

This has been a week of new-car launches, and much attention has focused on novelty.

In Valencia, there was Renault's new exhaust system, which exits out of the front of the sidepods and blows along them and under the floor in a bid to increase downforce. There was Williams's tiny gearbox. Even humble Toro Rosso were at it with a double floor.

Poor Ferrari - whose car does have innovations on it even if they are not as immediately obvious as some - and Red Bull - who have concentrated on evolving the car that was the class of the field in 2010 - were virtually ignored.

Until the cars actually went out on to the track, that is. At which point, guess what? Just as for most of 2010, the Red Bull and Ferrari were the quickest things out there, world champion Sebastian Vettel setting the pace on day one from Fernando Alonso, before the Spaniard, last season's runner-up, turned the tables, on day two.

They were beaten only by Robert Kubica's Renault on the final day, when the track was quicker because more rubber had gone down and Vettel and Alonso had gone home.

And there's the rub. F1 isn't all about innovation. It's about getting your car working together as a package, about making the numbers add up, about what engineers call "L over D". That's lift over drag - getting as much downforce (negative lift) as you can for as little drag as possible.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at the launch of the new McLaren F1 car

Hamilton and Button cannot hide their admiration for their new F1 car. Photo: Getty

In recent years, this has been what has let McLaren down. The team innovated last year, too, introducing the F-duct aerodynamic device, which stalled the rear wing on the straights, therefore allowing the team to either run more downforce than their rivals without the attendant straight-line speed penalty or the same downforce and be faster on the straights.

Even with this, though, the McLaren was not as aero-efficient as the Red Bull or Ferrari, and that continues a trend that has been apparent for the last few seasons.

Last season was a step forward from 2009, when McLaren started the year with a car that even they admit was awful. It improved through the year to the point that Hamilton was able to win a couple of races, but was still some way behind the pace-setters on tracks where efficient downforce is critical.

Even in 2007 and 2008, when McLaren respectively should have and did win the drivers' title, Hamilton believes the car was fundamentally not as good as the Ferrari against which it was competing. "Since I've been here, we've never had a car that was particularly strong aerodynamically," he said at one point last season.

That, in a nutshell, is the big question mark hanging over McLaren on the eve of the 2011 season.

Their drivers are world-class, Hamilton arguably the fastest in the world, and Button - not far behind him on pure pace - possibly the cleverest; the team is well-resourced; and they have fabulous engineering depth. But will the car ultimately be quick enough?

McLaren are aware of where they have fallen short in recent years, and director of engineering Tim Goss talks about "setting ourselves a very ambitious aerodynamic target for 2011".

But, for all the gorgeous curves on their new car, only in Bahrain next month will they begin to get a definitive answer as to whether those targets have either been achieved, or were high enough.


Dorino Serafini Chico Serra Doug Serrurier

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