McLaren on beating Ferrari, overtaking, and the return of tyre-only pit stops 14 Oct 2009
McLarens miraculous turnaround this season, culminating in race victories in Hungary and Singapore, has been the subject of much discussion. And one of the key figures responsible for that renaissance has been engineering director Paddy Lowe, who crafted a winning car out of an initially hamstrung MP4-24.
The British team are now focused on stealing third in the constructors championship from long-time rivals Ferrari. But as an engineer with over 20 years experience and a leading figure in the FIAs Overtaking Working Group (OWG), Lowe had a lot more to discuss during a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session than simply beating the Italians
Q: How important is it to McLaren to finish third in the constructors championship, ahead of Ferrari? Is it crucial - and can you do it?
PL: I think the answer is yes, its very important to us. Obviously we want to win the championship. Clearly thats out of reach for this season, but to come third instead of fourth - at least youre on a step I suppose. But also to beat Ferrari, who are our long-time rivals, is very important to us for the prestige and sense of pride amongst our engineers. Theyve beaten us for the last two years on the constructors side and that is an important point to reach this year. It is achievable - were two points behind at the moment. Having said that, theres two races to go and a lot can happen in any direction. We cant rule out Toyota, who are currently fifth - they are only 10.5 points behind, which is still a threat.
Q: Do you have a particular strategy for the next two races which will allow you to beat Ferrari and keep Toyota at bay?
PL: No, I dont think theres anything special to do there. We want to get points from both drivers. In that respect, were at a slight advantage because of the fact that Ferrari have been struggling a little bit on the Fisichella side of the garage.
Q: Ferrari have been saying for some time that theyve halted development work on this years car, while McLaren seem to bringing new updates to every race. Do you believe them and if so why havent McLaren adopted this policy?
PL: It has struck me from the outset as quite a strange policy to announce because in Formula One development is continuous, particularly without track testing. The Friday practice opportunity at races is your prime chance to look at new pieces, whether its for that event or learning for the following year, so we have kept bringing new parts and we have kept up development work at the factory. Obviously development from one year to the next is not a digital process, its an analogue one. So we migrate, and it is a question of at what rate we migrate. We are nearing the end of that migration, and it is slightly surprising for Ferrari to announce that they've shifted 100 percent so early.
Q: Obviously weve got the refuelling ban next year. Can you talk through some of the implications of that on both car design and race strategy? We know cars will be quick after stops rather than before them
PL: Its a very big change actually and one thats taken an awful lot of effort from all the team to manage, whether thats from the literal design of the fuel tank in the car through to the crashworthiness of the car, through to the strategy. The races I believe will pan out very differently next year. Some are saying less interestingly. Im not convinced. I think there are reasons to expect fresh interest. The cars will be very different in weight between the start of a race and the end. This is something we took as normal pre-refuelling, so 1993 or before, but weve come to see weight as just another analogue change. At the moment its just a linear increase of lap time when you add weight. The cars are essentially sprint cars.
We will move into the domain where you have a car that is a completely different machine when you add 160 kilos of fuel to it. And to an extent you will have to trade the qualifying performance for a net race performance (gain) in the set-up you select. I think that will give some differences in the race itself with peoples performances coming and going relative to that weight transition.
The other factor will be the tyres. Currently Bridgestone are saying that the tyre will be rated for 200 kilometres. Its not clear what would happen if you ran it for longer than that. The races are obviously 300 kilometres, so there will be some interest in how people choose to deploy different tyres. And we shouldnt rule out the point that the regulations, unlike when we had no refuelling before, do require one tyre change. Youve got to run option and prime. Its not impossible that the design of the tyres would make it advantageous to change more than that. People are assuming it will only be one change, but it could well be that the tyres degrade sufficiently to need more than just one stop, certainly at some races.
Q: In recent years the duration of a pit stop has been dictated by the amount of fuel thats gone in, not by the tyres. Are we going to see people running round and changing tyres in absolute Guinness Book of Record times now? If so, is that going to be an extra risk and extra spectacle?
PL: Im really looking forward to pit stops next year. I think that when we brought in the refuelling in 1993 we lost the spectacle of pit stops as it was. The competitive nature of wheel change-only stops, team to team, was very fascinating in those days and we will return to that. Id also say that with Formula One being even more competitive now than in times past, we will see some very impressive change times and great competitiveness amongst the teams. It also has a nice human element to it and brings the team of mechanics into play so much more actively in the race result. At the moment their job is to not get it wrong - next year their job will be to do it quicker and not get it wrong. I think that will be great.
Q: This years radical rule changes havent noticeably increased the amount of overtaking. What would your solution be to solve this perennial problem?
PL: The OWG put a lot of work into the rules that determined the cars we race this year. It hasnt been a huge success and Id be the first to agree with that. Having said that, it hasnt been a huge failure. The OWG, and hence the bodywork changes for this year, had two principle means to deliver better wake following. One was the reduction in aerodynamic downforce and the other was to change the nature of the bodywork so that following is easier at a given downforce level. The benefit from those was evenly split.
The benefit from absolute downforce level has been almost completely lost because the cars this year have almost regained 2008 downforce, so we shouldnt expect to benefit from something that hasnt transpired. In terms of the characteristics its very difficult to know, but from the little bit of feedback that we get from drivers, I sense that weve certainly improved it slightly and not made it worse. So the car following is not terrible, but equally were not seeing a lot of overtaking as a result. But then I dont think we should expect miracles. The performance of the cars is at historically close levels, so that is also a negative for a driver overtaking. Whatever we do we need to retain aerodynamics for performance and to have cars that are at the pinnacle of motorsport. So there will always be a wake problem. While we will need to tailor the rules from time to time - and we will need to reduce aerodynamic downforce in time if only for safety reasons - that will keep overtaking in a similar domain to where it is today. I dont think were going to dramatically improve that.
I personally think that the benefits will come by looking at circuits. We were talking about this only the other day with (McLaren team principal) Martin Whitmarsh, and he made quite an obvious statement that is also quite meaningful. If you go to a circuit and you ask a driver where he can overtake he will say, theres only one place where I might be able to do it and it is here. All the drivers will agree on that same corner. So if you follow the logic of that, we should be asking why all corners cant have the features that drivers can so easily pinpoint to improve opportunities.
Q: Do you think the OWG would have been more effective if the step diffusers hadnt been allowed, or is that an oversimplification?
PL: I think theres certainly an effect if only because step diffusers can increase the downforce of the cars dramatically and that was not anticipated by the OWG work. And because absolute downforce has a direct effect on wake, as whatever you do you will lose downforce in the wake of a leading car. There has been a detriment, but I think it would be a step too far to say that was the reason why OWG didnt deliver to the extent anticipated.
Q: This year McLaren have made an incredible turnaround from a difficult start to the season. Is that mid-season catch-up going to become harder to achieve in future years when the resource restrictions kick in?
PL: I dont think it will be that much harder. What we do is mostly down to ingenuity and application of the team to problem solving. Its not particularly about throwing money at problems. Obviously there will be financial challenges to see how you can use your budget efficiently over the 12-month cycle, and how you trade between the money you spend on the basic car and the money you spend on developing it in-season. Development is not cost free, but I dont think that aspect will dominate our ability to compete.
Q: If you could wind back the clock, what engineering decisions by the team this year would you like to undo?
PL: Ive totted up the points and weve score more points since Germany than any other team, which is very satisfying. We did make a number of mistakes, which we have been quite honest about. I think one of the areas would relate to the fitment of KERS and weight distribution. We did make an error in terms of our basic front to rear weight distribution choice. With KERS on the car we had no freedom to move that in the early part of the season. Theres a fundamental design choice there that wed rather take again. I think there are some aerodynamic choices that we would have redone, but I think that they are quite difficult to describe in detail. Another big player was the interpretation of the rules in relation to floors. I dont know how I would have my time again on that, but Id rather have worked from the start with the same interpretation as some of the other teams. That would certainly have helped us out.
Q: You mentioned before that car performance had become very circuit specific. Earlier in the year circuits with fast corners were rather a weak point for McLaren, but in Suzuka you were on the podium. Was that result a surprise or have you solved your problem with fast corners?
PL: Looking at the last four flyaway races of the year, we were rather worried about Suzuka, so we were very pleasantly surprised to find ourselves with a good podium result. The performance of the car was strong, but it was still weak in the high-speed corners. Its still not a strong point, its just that the package as a whole is still able to challenge for wins.
Q: How have you been preparing for Abu Dhabi and how do you think the MP4-24 will perform there?
PL: We have a simulator so weve built a very good model of the circuit, using accurate survey data and a lot of image data to create the right views for the driver. So both our drivers will - they havent yet - have a session on the simulator. They will come prepared to hit the ground running because theyll know the circuit. We will have dialled in a set-up to suit. In general, not just for Abu Dhabi, we are quite good at hitting the ground running on the Friday. Of course that doesnt mean that youll be ahead throughout the weekend - others can develop their cars throughout practice - but I think we should be better placed than most in terms of circuit knowledge and set-up knowledge. Will the car work well there? We think it will be reasonably good. I think youve seen this season has been full of surprises. The team competitiveness is such that there is very little lap time from top to bottom. Weve reached a point where cars, or their strengths and weaknesses in relation to circuits, are almost more dominant than the average difference between teams. Thats why theres a constant shift in the order. I think McLaren have reached a point where we are actually averagely good. We seem to be better than most at being consistently near the top, certainly through the second half of the season. And Abu Dhabi is among the tracks where we think we should perform very competitively.