Formula 1 has undergone a raft of changes the 2005 season. These will affect aerodynamics, engines and tyres, as well as the format of the grand prix weekend itself. Kimi Raikkonen tests the new McLaren Mercedes MP4-20. Photo by ...
Formula 1 has undergone a raft of changes the 2005 season. These will affect aerodynamics, engines and tyres, as well as the format of the grand prix weekend itself.
During the winter period, Team McLaren Mercedes has to take into account rule changes for the upcoming season as the MP4-20 has been designed and built at the McLaren Technology Centre. The package for 2005 is perhaps the most significant for many years, and the team's engineers have several challenges to face. At the start of the first test of the MP4-20 in Barcelona this week, Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula One, Team McLaren Mercedes, discusses the changes.
Q: How have the regulations regarding tyres changed for 2005?
Martin Whitmarsh: Until recently the only restriction on the Michelin tyres used by the Team McLaren Mercedes team for race day was that whatever set was used in the single qualifying run on Saturday afternoon was also used at the start, due to the parc ferme conditions. As a result the tyres became an important element of pit stop strategy, and at the stops it was possible to switch to either brand new tyres or scrubbed sets that had been used in practice or first qualifying. From the start of the 2005 season in Melbourne, the set used in final qualifying has to last for the whole race distance. That means up to four times as long as previously -- depending on the number of stops normally made at a particular circuit. It represents a huge change in philosophy in terms of how the tyres are developed.
Q: What challenges has this created for the team and Michelin?
MW: Traditionally tyres have been optimised in a number of ways. While wear, durability and degradation have been important issues, the performance of the tyre on its first lap was very significant. Ordinarily that tyre then had to last typically for no more than one-third of a race distance. It is of course well within the capabilities of our Technology Partner Michelin to make a tyre that lasts far more than a race distance, but there is always trade-off between performance and longevity, and that's something that we've got to address.
If we're too conservative in our tyre choice that will undoubtedly affect the performance of the tyre. The challenge now for Michelin and ourselves is to take into account the wear characteristics of every circuit. That varies from circuit to circuit, and it also varies from the start of the weekend to the end of it. We'll have a relatively small opportunity on Fridays to choose between the two specifications of tyres that we'll have available for the weekend.
Q: How do you believe this will effect how the team handles tyres over a race weekend?
MW: While it's obvious that making a tyre last for a full race is not an easy task, there are specific challenges that have to be addressed as a tyre goes through its life cycle. We pre-heat the tyres before we use them, because the compounds are designed to operate at elevated temperatures. While the car is on the circuit that temperature is maintained by the work done within the compound. That phenomenon is fairly well understood, and it requires a certain mass of rubber in the tread band itself. Otherwise you don't get either the movement of compound which generates heat, or the thermal mass to retain the heat, because you've got a tyre that's rushing along at high speed being cooled all the time.
Where that becomes significant is when the car comes into the last fuel stop. The tyres will cool down, and it is then difficult to reheat tyres that don't have sufficient tread mass. If we get it wrong, you could have tyres that have poor performance in the last stint because we're unable to put heat into them.
Q: Is this regulation change only affecting the work of Michelin's design team?
MW: It is not just a question of what Michelin delivers to the team, we have a clear role to play in the equation. In reality things like camber settings and suspension geometry all have an influence on this, so it's not a challenge that we can solely pass to Michelin. We have to work with them on all those aspects so we can understand how we can develop a tyre that is quick over one lap of qualifying, will last the duration of the race, and have good performance over the two or three sectors of the race. Until recently the work to develop suspension, car operating procedures and to optimise the tyres themselves has not been focused on that.
Q: What revisions have been implemented to engine use for the new season?
MW: Last season engines of course had a life of a race weekend. If a change was made as the result of a failure or accident damage, the driver had to take a 10-place grid slot penalty. Now the team's Mercedes-Benz FO 110R (TBC) engines have to last for two full race weekends. Most teams are now aiming for a life of around 1500kms, which is twice as much as previously. Of course rather like the tyres, you could design an engine that does the whole racing season, but what we now have to do is tread that fine line of performance trade-off for durability. The engine engineers will be able to give you a matrix that says, what would you rather have: x rpm and 1000kms, or y rpm and 1500kms? That's the trade-off that you are going to make.
Q: What are the implications of these changes?
MW: Last year some teams ran fewer practice laps than they would have done in the past, at least in the early races. As they became more confident with reliability, the drivers were then able to increase the number of laps they drove. Whitmarsh expects some teams to be more conservative than others, which will really put a premium on arriving at the grand prix with a near perfect set-up and having experienced drivers. Inevitably those teams whose durability or endurance development has gone better than others will be more bullish than those who are concerned. I suspect that if you've got a dirty track or inclement weather, teams will hold back. If they weren't so conscious of engine life, they would be out on the circuit.
Mercedes-Benz has been working flat out on the key areas that always have an impact on reliability. Typically you look at major castings and make sure that you're not getting cracks. You look at bearings, at piston life, at conrod life, and those sorts of highly stressed parts. You look at strengthening things and enhancing cooling capabilities to extend the life of critical components. Ultimately you may also back off slightly on rpm to extend life. However, in all probability the engines will have broadly the same performance as previously, certainly during qualifying.
Q: What regulations changes will have the most visible presence on the MP4-20?
MW: The key technical changes for 2005 concern aerodynamics. The one whose results are the most obvious as the new cars are being unveiled is the raising of the front wing, although the diffuser and rear wing have also been subject to changes designed to reduced ground effect. The changes to the aero regulations were made very late, and inevitably the teams then had to weigh up how much they could optimise in that limited amount of time. No team has had the amount of time that they would have wanted in order to properly evaluate the opportunities that were afforded by the changes.
It's commonly accepted that there's an initial loss of 20-25% in aero efficiency, and everyone is working hard to erode that. The teams who do the best job will get a lot of it back. I'm sure before the start of the season there will be all sorts of speculation in that regard. I'd be sceptical about anyone saying they've restored the efficiency that they had before. If they do it suggests that their previous cars could not have been particularly well optimised. If you had an efficient 2004 car it will be more difficult.
Q: What other alterations have been made to the chassis?
MW: Aero is of course a key issue, but there are also changes to the chassis dictated by ongoing improvements in crash testing. Elsewhere on the MP4-20 we've got increased side penetration requirements which will make the cars safer and more robust. It's quite a lot of work, but it's very positive. Of course the technical rules cannot be taken in isolation. Along with the need to make the tyres last, they mean that every area of the car has to be addressed.
The reality is that because of the tyre changes and the aero changes you have to rethink the whole package -- weight distribution, suspension geometry and so on. Formula One cars are so integrated and the performance margins we're chasing are so small that if you change anything it has consequences. For example changing the front wing affects the flow field and thus engine cooling and brake cooling."
Q: 2005 will see a new race weekend format, can you outline the changes?
MW: For the fourth time in as many years Grands Prix weekends will run to a different timetable in 2005. Following the unplanned experiment in Suzuka last year as a result of the typhoon, there will be a one-lap qualifying session on Sunday morning following the more familiar Saturday afternoon session, with the grid being formed by aggregating the times from both runs. The key issue is that while on Sunday cars will run with race fuel, and cannot be topped-up, on Saturday fuel load is free. And that means that everyone will run in 'flat out' mode with enough for one flying lap, as we have previously done.
The only thing you can say is that it's the same for everybody. Now you've got two sessions where people have got to be cautious, and two sessions where they've got a completely different fuel load. You had a choice in 2004, unless it was vitally important to secure track position, you could do the first run with the fuel load you planned to use in final qualifying. We've all experienced cars that respond better to taking fuel out or to having fuller tanks. More recently the latter was the more important criteria, but now both are.
Q: Finally, are the team planning to run a third car this year?
MW: For the Team McLaren Mercedes team there will be another change in 2005. The rules allow all teams finishing outside the top four the previous year to field a third entry in Friday testing. There are obvious benefits to be gained as the third driver can do tyre comparison and chassis setup work without worrying about engine miles. In theory that means that the other drivers don't have to run as many miles as those in other leading teams. A third car will help us.
Normally there will be a conflict in people's minds. The chassis engineers will want to pile miles on, those working on the engine will want to conserve its life, and the tyre engineers have a limited number of tyres to use. If you've got a third car that falls outside those limitations of mileage and number of tyres, it's a nice thing to have. We'll have an experienced driver piloting the car. You've got to have someone who's an integral part of your development programme.