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Paddy Lowe Q&A: Ride-height clarification will not harm McLaren 13 Apr 2010

Paddy Lowe (GBR) McLaren Engineering Director. Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday 25 April 2009. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/25 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 4 April 2010 (L to R): Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren with team mate Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren on the drivers parade.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 4 April 2010 (L to R): Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren Managing Director  talks with Paddy Lowe (GBR) McLaren Engineering Director.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday, 12 March 2010 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/25 makes a pit stop. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 4 April 2010

Ride-height control systems have dominated Formula One racing’s technical chatter in recent weeks. But following the FIA’s reiteration of the rules, McLaren’s engineering director Paddy Lowe isn’t concerned about how the British team will be affected. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, Lowe also discussed their strategy decisions during qualifying for the Malaysia race, the strengths and weaknesses of the MP4-25 and this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix…

Q: As a result of the FIA suspension ruling, have McLaren had to change anything?
Paddy Lowe:
Well we have been working with the FIA for a few months on this subject. It is a complex one that goes back to 1993 when active ride suspensions were banned. So exactly how you interpret the regulations, in relation to ride height adjustment, is very complex. I have to say we respect the FIA's difficult job of navigating through that difficult area. We were aware over the last few months of a slightly different approach to it, which we hadn't historically thought to be the normal interpretation, and we were reacting to that. I think that now the FIA have taken a fresh view of it and drawn a different line - one that we think is nearer the historical line - we are reacting to that too, which has meant that we have had to change some of the things that we were doing.

Q: Do you think it will affect the competitiveness of the car in China?
Not of our car, because I would say that in terms of us taking a fresh look at this, we got the feeling that we were rather late to the game, relative to perhaps some others. We absolutely don't know who has been doing what, and whether indeed anyone has been racing anything in the nature of ride-height control systems. We definitely got a hint that others were more advanced in development, but we absolutely haven't got a clue as to whether anyone else has a system on their cars. We had things that we were working on which we've now suspended.

Q: Are they things that have already gone on to the car?
No. They are things that haven’t yet been made.

Q: There’ll be no alterations to the suspension system on the McLaren for China then?
You're absolutely correct.

Q: Are you still confident of being closer to Red Bull in China?
We made some improvements for Malaysia and we have a few more for China, which are all aerodynamic. What was more than a disappointment in Malaysia was our experience in qualifying. A side effect was that we didn’t get the chance to test ourselves against our immediate competitors in a dry qualifying session. Hopefully we can do that in China and see where we’ve got to with our latest developments. The circuit is similar to the Malaysian track and we were strong in practice in Malaysia and strong in the race, so there’s promise. Hopefully we can be a bit more competitive in qualifying than we were at the first two races and really fight for a win.

Q: What was at the top of your ‘to-do’ list following the Malaysia race? Improving your approach to qualifying?
Things are always easier with the benefit of hindsight. One of the issues we also recall with some pain was Monza in 2008, when we also made an error in Q1 for which Lewis (Hamilton) paid the price. In some ways what we were doing in Q1 in Malaysia was learning from that experience. But we realised afterwards that we had applied the wrong learning. What we really needed to be doing was shadowing, in terms of tyre choice, the people we needed to knock out of Q1, not our immediate competitors. I think all the leading teams fell for that, and some suffered and some didn't. We were particularly badly off because Lewis spun in the last turn during the crucial window where the track was quickest. Jenson (Button) made it through but he then spun off on the subsequent lap. We have refined our rules in terms of how we approach wet conditions. You know there are a lot of factors to consider. One of the things I should mention is that there had been a strong hint from the drivers’ meeting and team managers’ meeting that if qualifying had been called off due to torrential rain, then there was a strong chance that all the times from Q1 would become the grid. This is another factor why some teams were holding out in order to get the best lap times on the best tyres we had. So in a sense it was greedy, but the greed was there for rational reasons.

Q: Looking ahead to next year, Michelin have talked about possibly coming back if Formula One racing were to adopt low-profile tyres. How much extra cost and work would that mean for the teams?
Michelin are talking to the FIA about a return to F1 for 2011-2013, and 18-inch wheels would be a requirement on their part. I think principally they feel that those wheels would be more contemporary in terms of appearance and technology. For us, it depends how we manage it as to how big a problem it could become. I think in terms of being conscious of the time and the costs, the teams, I hope, will agree to a set of constraints that mean we don't expand the development into an envelope that's screwed up by that. Obviously with a bigger wheel you have a smaller amount of volume around the brake and the upright. I think we can do it in a way that manages the cost. I don't think it would be too bad.

Q: Is it a move that McLaren support?
Yes. I think all the teams have agreed that if Michelin would supply that as a condition then we would support that.

Q: Where would you say the MP4-25 is strongest and weakest?
I think the car is good overall on race pace, particularly in the early to mid part of the race we seem to be in good shape relative to our competitors. Generally if you are trying to win the race, you want a good qualifying position, but given the position you do have then the first third or two thirds of the race are crucial. It's proven that our car has a very strong pace in that period. I think it has shown a good ability to overtake, which has proved very fruitful, so we have good straight-line performance. I think really qualifying is the one thing we need to solve - I couldn’t really put my finger on another. We are pretty happy with the car and I know Lewis has been saying some nice things about it lately relative to last year. Last year's car, we freely admitted, was very poor in high-speed corners and this year’s car, if anything, is stronger in the high-speed corners relative to the low-speed corners. So it tends to be in the low speed, where the drivers have the most complaints.

Q: Last year the teams agreed to cut costs, but you all still seem to be bringing upgrades to every race and developing new concepts. Have the budgets been restricted?
The teams agreed a contract which is called the resource restriction agreement and that bring in a set of caps. We have the wind tunnel and CFD caps, which have been running for well over a year now. And we have got external expenditure and headcount caps. We are all working to those I hope - we certainly are at McLaren - and they have involved us being much more precise about how we use different elements of the budget in those categories. Although it may not appear to you that things have changed, they have, and they will get tougher over the next 12 months. You say you haven’t seen much change, and in some senses that is good because we still need to put on a good show. It’s a sport so we need to provide entertainment, interest and excitement. The last thing we want to do is to look like we have all turned into dinosaurs that don’t do anything. Things are changing behind the scenes.

Q: How successfully have wing restrictions reduced the downforce levels of the cars?
I think things are getting worse in regards to how close we are to the intentions of the Overtaking Working Group (OWG), which set the rules for 2009. Principally, this is because the cars are generating much more downforce out of the floors than was ever envisaged, and that’s driven by the opportunity you get with the double diffuser interpretation. One of the intentions of the OWG package was the downforce generated from the floor should be much lower, and this helps overtaking for two reasons. One, is that if the cars have less downforce altogether, there is a direct correlation between the amount of downforce cars have and the wake problem. It’s really obvious because if you lose downforce in the wake, and you have less to start with, then you lose less. The second one is to do with where the downforce is generated, and generating it from the floor is a bad characteristic, because of wake. So we’ve gone in the wrong direction. Downforce now in these cars is approaching where it was in 2008. At the same time we have slick tyres, whereas in 2008 we had grooved tyres, so it has escalated. We have all agreed for next year to ban double diffusers and also to reduce the height of the diffuser exit. Both will instantly reduce floor downforce, which is better for following cars and therefore for overtaking. We are looking at whether even that is sufficient. It’s an ongoing discussion as to whether even more should be done. I think what we've already agreed are very good steps and absolutely correct directionally for what we learnt from the OWG.

Q: What is your interpretation of the ride-height ruling?
There are two aspects actually. There’s what you can do to a car between qualifying and the race, under parc ferme restrictions. And there is quite a clear ruling there that says that any adjustment to the suspension would require you to start from the pit lane, and this was originally intended to stop people changing springs, ride heights, etc. I think where it has got a little bit tricky is that you can design suspensions, which could effectively self-adjust during that period. But if you imagine a suspension where, without any human intervention, it changes its set-up, I think there is a perspective that would say ‘Well, I haven’t touched it, so it’s no different’. What the FIA have now clarified, which makes it very straightforward, is that even if you haven’t touched it but have effectively programmed it to change, then you have changed set-up. The other one is what you can do in a race, which has also been clarified by the FIA. There are systems that can be developed that can control ride height during the race. A bit like an active suspension, but without using external power. If such systems were captured, going back to 1993, by that same interpretation, they are no different to an active suspension, even if they don’t use external power, and I think that’s the point that has also been reclarified. During a pit stop you could adjust the ride height but you couldn’t adjust it on the grid for instance.

Q: Will the FIA check this by measuring ride height?
No. I think they will measure it by inspecting the car, determining what equipment is there and understanding how it works, which is quite a normal process for the FIA.

Q: How far can the concept of the ‘F-duct’ be pushed next year? Could cars end up looking a bit like Swiss cheese?
I think that fear has been expressed by some teams, but we’ve openly said to them that the technology doesn't lend itself to a huge degree of escalation. An easy way to look at it is that teams have been attempting either legally or illegally for many years to find ways to use wings in order to reduce drag. It's always been a big issue and there are now a great deal of regulations and tests to stop trickery in that area. If you think of the amount of effort that is put into rear wings for that it is much more than any other area of the car. You know, we don’t have great concerns about front wings backing off or sidepods backing off. The same is true in the application of this technology. It lends itself to backing off the rear wing, but by the same token, there's much less to gain by applying that to any other parts of the car.

Q: In terms of regulations, there’s nothing set in stone regarding the concept?
No and I’m not just saying that as a tactic either. We have probably found the vast bulk of the benefit you can gain from that technology. We haven’t envisaged a way of, for instance, doubling the benefit from where we are today.