Will Gray

Tech Talk: McLaren’s testing gamble

Will Gray

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McLaren's decision to go against the grain and launch their new car late has been criticised by some as "strange" - but there are several reasons why it could be the perfect approach for 2011.

The new MP4-26 will not be revealed until February 4 in Berlin, a day after the opening three-day pre-season test begins. McLaren insist they are not running late in manufacturing and that it was always the plan to run their 2010 car in the first test, but by that time, if all goes to plan, all the other front-running teams will have had their new cars out on track clocking up several hundred kilometres.

It's always a delicate balancing act between improving the reliability and set-up of a new car out on track and maximising development back in the windtunnel and the factory, and with such a close title battle last year the development race went well into the latter part of the season, delaying the amount of focus that could be put on the 2011 cars.

Reliability is important, but lots can be done away from the track on dynamometers at the factory, particularly in terms of testing the car's main mechanical systems, so in recent years the importance of track testing has reduced to some extent. Coupled with that, this year sees the end of double diffusers, the return of KERS and the arrival of an all-new movable rear wing, and although many say it is not a major fundamental change, it does open up potential areas of exploitation where extra time in development could reap big rewards.

Rule changes always offer the opportunity to capitalise on loopholes and develop creative approaches to new design areas - and in the last two years significant innovations launched at the start of the season were the double diffuser with Brawn, Williams and Toyota in 2009 and the f-duct with McLaren in 2010. Both allowed the teams involved to get a jump on their rivals, and in the case of Brawn it was the main reason they were able to come from nowhere and take the title.

In both instances, copycat designs were quickly developed, but any advantage is worth protecting and while it can be quick for other teams to run their own versions, it still takes a while to perfect them. Obviously, the longer they don't see them, the better.

McLaren have constantly talked of innovative new approaches for the 2011 car, and given that the teams have agreed to a tight weight balance window and KERS and the movable rear wing are relatively standardised, the main possible innovation opportunity McLaren could be exploring is in the diffuser area.

Aerodynamics is the most open area for innovation but while those in that department are always bulging with ideas, the structural designers will often knock down the concepts claiming they are unfeasible (as I understand happened in one front-running team with the blown diffuser concept in 2009).

The culture at McLaren, however, is such that these designs are encouraged to come to fruition, as proven by the f-duct last year, so it is quite possible they have something in the pipeline that has led to a longer development time on their 2011 machine.

It could, however, be that the only innovation McLaren have up their sleeve is their approach to the complicated issues related to the arrival of new Pirelli tyre.

All teams tested the new rubber at the end of last season, but Pirelli has developed it since then and it could be quite different.

McLaren plan to use a "relatively standard" chassis from 2010 for the first test, with a few modifications to approximate it to this year's reduced downforce levels. By doing that, their engineers will be able to understand how the tyre variable has changed without adding in all the other variables and complications associated with a new car. They will get a clearer understanding of the benchmark performance of the Pirelli tyres compared to last year's Bridgestones, and that could be important.

So whether they are launching late to hide what they think will be this year's unexpected innovation or to take a considered approach to the new tyres, it could well turn out to be an inspired decision.


January 28  Ferrari    

January 31  Renault    

January 31  Sauber     

February 1  Mercedes   

February 1  Red Bull   

February 1  Toro Rosso 

February 1  Williams   

February 4  McLaren    

TBC           Force India

TBC           HRT  

TBC           Lotus

TBC           Virgin

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