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McLaren's Jonathan Neale on tyres, test form and overtaking 21 Feb 2011

Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren Managing 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 MP4/26.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Monday, 21 February 2011 McLaren mechanics in pit lane.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Monday, 21 February 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Monday, 21 February 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren with Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren Managing Director.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, British Grand Prix, Practice Day, Silverstone, England, Friday, 9 July 2010

Onlookers trying to judge winter testing can sometimes find themselves stuck in a quagmire of data, desperately trying to tally lap times with likely fuel loads, set-up choices and tyre usage. Whilst Red Bull, Mercedes, Williams, Renault and Ferrari have all shared a slice of test day glory over the opening three tests, McLaren have been pretty low key - never taking the top spot, but never far enough from the sharp end to call the MP4-26’s performance into question. Confusing as it may be to outsiders, according to managing director Jonathan Neale the team are exactly where they hoped they’d be at this point in their pre-season preparations. Neale discusses the importance of a stable plateau for future developments, the quest for the perfect set-up for Pirelli’s new tyres, and the success of 2011’s rule changes…

Q: How is testing going so far?
Jonathan Neale:
When we put the MP4-26 on the road for the first couple of days, Lewis (Hamilton) and Jenson (Button) both had quite positive feedback. Having driven the MP4-25 the week before on the tyres, both were then able to feel the difference between the two cars. I think that was a smart thing for us to do, given that there was so much change going on. It would be very difficult to disentangle and reengineer what was tyre, what’s car, what’s aerodynamic and what’s mechanical. (In Barcelona) we are running KERS and we are running the drag reduction system. We are getting what we expected to get from that. If there’s a circuit anywhere that will test your car for stability and aerodynamics then Barcelona is the place to do it.

Q: Are you concerned about pace? Are you worried Red Bull could be sandbagging?
I think everybody is concerned about pace at this time because you've got no firm ground. Job one for us is to make sure the car will go round and do the mileage and that there are no gremlins and to make sure that the numbers in the wind tunnel correlate with the car on the circuit and that the car is stable. If you've got a problem, particularly if it's an aerodynamic one, not only have you got to go backwards to try to fire-fight the issue itself, you've got a whole series of question marks about the upgrades you are bringing, because you are no longer on firm ground. I think the job for all of us is to get on to firm ground, which is happening. I think the early reliability of the Ferrari looks very good, their ability to pound round with consistent lap times. But the degradation of the tyres has been very high for everybody. You never know what fuel people are running, and with a soft tyre that can produce a lap time of probably one second a lap faster than the relatively hard tyre that we had last week, and then there are high levels of degradation. If you don’t nail that first lap then you’re not going to be able to lift, let the car cool and then go back again. That’s it - it’s done. I think the other thing, not just the difference in the tyres, is the quantity of the tyres. The tyre quantity is quite limited, so you haven’t got that option of putting three or four sets of new tyres on the car to let the drivers have a real go. You have to eek them out at the moment. What’s really interesting is what does that mean for racing? With tyres that are very quick, with high degradation, then the number of pit stops will change. Or if you're at the front of the grid on a very soft tyre, you'll be sitting there with somebody behind you who has probably got another 15 laps in their tyres and you’ll be coming in. You're not going to pull a 20-second gap in six to ten laps, so after you pit you're going to drop straight back into traffic and backmarkers. So I think it promises some very interesting racing.

Q: Are you pleased with the tyres?
I think from the work we did at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and then the first test with the MP4-25 and looking at what everybody else is doing, knowing that their fuel loads will be different to ours but looking at the rate of wear and degradation, then I we have got a reasonable idea of where the tyres are and what they’re doing. I think Pirelli are working really hard and in a really open way with the teams. They have given us great access to information. They are very receptive and have been very open to working with us to try and find resolutions to the problems. I think it will provide for the spectators a really interesting mix. I think it will throw drivers into the grid in a position where we have the opportunity to use these various overtaking devices, assuming they can get on the right part of the circuit where there’s some grip to deploy them. I think with KERS, the hybrid stuff and the drag reduction system, if teams are out there getting 11/12/13 km/h difference down the straights then there’s a reasonable chance.

Q: The fixed weight distribution rule was brought in to ease the transition to Pirelli tyres. Do you think they’ve got that right?
I think it’s a bit early to tell really. I think most of us are just relieved because it means that you don’t find yourselves massively out of bed with that. We are still trying to find a set-up with these tyres. As reliability comes up then you get some more track time and then you can change the set-up. But then very soon after that you get the barrage of upgrades and you’re back in set-up development again, so it’s a bit of a circular process. That’s the one thing we miss from having extensive track testing time - letting the race engineers and drivers have enough time to find a set-up.

Q: Would you like to have a bit longer on the track to test?
I think it depends what’s going on with the regulations. I think if you look at the changes for 2013 on the chassis/engine changes, then I don’t doubt for a minute that the teams would like some more track testing. On the other hand, I completely accept and understand that Formula One needs to be prudent financially. The cost of going testing was huge and we have collectedly disbanded our test teams. We need to adapt and do more in simulation. I think it forces us to make changes and do more on Fridays, which is a bit more entertaining for everybody at the circuit. More development is on display. Fridays are anything but dull as we compete for set-up, tyre work and aero changes.

Q: How much of your test work now is based around getting a good and accurate simulation model so you can carry out work in a virtual environment?
A huge amount. I think last year a number of less reputable journalists thought we were in trouble with our car because of the number of rakes. We were sending the car out on the circuit looking like an agricultural vehicle. They had paraphernalia all over them. This is the one opportunity we have got to gauge the correlation between how good were our models and what assumptions did we make over the winter and what’s actually on the track. How are the cars performing, what are the aerodynamics doing, what is the map between the rig work and the track work? We can then go back and build that model and run with those. It makes us much more disciplined in how we use the winter tests.

Q: Did Pirelli’s wet-weather test at Abu Dhabi help?
Pirelli used the Abu Dhabi test as a data gathering exercise. We saw a big development in the tyres between Abu Dhabi and the first test of this year. They have changed some of the compounds and some of the construction of the tyres quite dramatically. I think that will continue. They are coming up a very steep learning curve with us.

Q: Virgin’s Nick Worth is adamant about the benefits of CFD. How important a part does it/will it play at McLaren?
It’s a conversation that we have had frequently over the last ten years. Every two or three years we stop and have a look at the role of CFD and how do you use it, when do you retire the wind tunnel. We don’t think we are there yet. There are things you can do in a tunnel that we struggle to do in CFD. If you are going to build your model, then you need to decide what you are modelling against. Unless you have real - and good - track data from the car then building a virtual model and validating that is quite difficult. We don’t think we’re at the stage where you can get the maths right for something that complex. It would be a risk too far. You could be burning a lot of time and resource on parts that may not work. Plus it’s also restricted, nobody has unbridled CFD time. CFD is important to us, but we’re wind-tunnel junkies. We are not at that stage to give that up.

Q: Presumably you’re using up your limit of CFD?
Yes absolutely. We believe we have the right model mix of wind-tunnel hours and CFD time. We are trying to optimise, so for every hour of wind-tunnel time we gather as much accurate data as we can. I want to say 50:50 (wind tunnel to CFD testing) and it’s not 80:20. It’s nearer 50:50. We are serious about CFD but we’re not ready to give up the tunnel yet.

Q: Have any parts on rival cars caught your attention? Or are you happy with your own innovations?
We've had a really good look over all the cars and obviously they continue to develop. The Renault exhaust is an interesting feature. Williams’ rear end is another - we've all been trying to figure out just quite how that comes together and works. Clearly they are making it work. It's always nice when somebody turns up with something different. We had evaluated the exhaust position that Renault are using, because I think all teams through the end of last year looked at what Red Bull had achieved by blowing the floor with the exhausts, and then inevitably once the engineers are onto that theme you start to explore the envelope. So I think it's interesting that they've picked that option and I think it's interesting to see what Red Bull are currently doing, where they are blowing their exhausts at the moment. I think the biggest issue for all the teams is with the elimination of the double diffuser and the restricted height of the rear end. There is a finite capacity - it is half the height of last year’s diffuser. Once you have a fixed volume there’s only so much you can do with it, so that’s why everybody’s trying to do different things with their exhausts to get more from the back of the car.

Q: Last year people questioned whether Button and Hamilton would get on, but they look like they’re the most stable line-up. Are you pleased it’s worked out so well?
Any management team with cohesive drivers, who are working well together, would be mighty relieved. The guys are very competitive. We don’t expect them to be gentlemanly on the circuit. Someone asked me whether I could see a situation where they would join up on the circuit and use the drag reduction system for joint advantage. My answer to that is no. I could see Lewis and Jenson tear round each other and pull away into the distance. I don’t think one would give much quarter to the other. I think the management will be sitting on the pit wall shuffling on our feet and wincing as we did on several occasions last year. They are world champions, established great drivers with nothing to prove in terms of their competence. They know what they’re doing. They get in the car and get on with it.

Q: A lot of drivers have commented that it has become very busy around the steering wheel. What’s your view on that?
I think at somewhere like Monza where you barrelling away into a low-speed corner and miss your braking point by a metre or two, then you’re out the back. The ergonomics of a cockpit are really important. In practice Lewis and Jenson haven’t found it a problem. We were slightly worried about it last year with the F-duct. But you must remember that the guys are incredibly fit, in their mid twenties and finely tuned to what they are doing. So far it hasn’t been an issue. We do look at the ergonomics for the drivers, at what software functions we bundle up in the switches, and I think if the grid decides it’s too much we do have the option to go back and start doing more from the garage to the car. Certainly we could take about 50 percent of the workload off the steering wheel and just do it with directional telemetry like we used to.

Q: Do you believe the changes for this year will boost overtaking?
I think so. If you can get an 11-12km/h boost in top speed out of the wing then it should be good, provided that as you pull out onto a piece of circuit it’s got grip. If the circuit is covered in a whole load of marbles, then it doesn't matter what you've got because you're grip limited rather than torque limited. The marbles are not a concern. I think they're a feature.

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