How McLaren is tackling the challenge of F1 2022
The upcoming summer break will represent a brief pitstop not just for the Formula 1 world championship fight, but also for a battle that’s going on behind the scenes.
All 10 teams are currently working flat out on their 2022 programmes and designing all-new cars to meet the demands of the biggest package of rules changes in years.
They are doing it against the background of a cost cap that reins in the biggest-spending teams, as well as a sliding scale of aerodynamic testing restrictions that works against the best performers. Those two factors provide a fresh context to the usual pattern of development.
McLaren isn’t in the same division as the established top three on spending, but the team has had to do some adjusting to ensure that it comes in under the $145m cap. And as the third-placed team of 2020, it correspondingly had the third-least amount of wind tunnel time and CFD usage up to the end of June.
When there was a re-set for the second half of the season, based on the mid-year positions, the team was again sitting third in the table. Thus, until the end of 2021, it will have to continue to do less aero work than all but two of its rivals, Red Bull and Mercedes. And assuming that it retains third place, that restriction relative to the competition will continue into 2022.
It’s an extra challenge thrown the way of McLaren technical director James Key and the rest of his team as they plough on with the new car project. It’s all about making the most of the resources you have.
“There were some cons of coming P3 last year in that respect, because it does hamper a little bit what you're able to do in this year with new regulations,” says Key.
“And to be honest, that was that was definitely a victim of the COVID situation, and the impact it had on the sport with delaying what became the ‘22 regs, because a lot of what was meant to be happening within the cost cap and this year was really meant to coincide with technical regulations which are complementing the cost cap a little bit better.
“It's an unfortunate situation that we've had this scale come in at a time when you've got these two cars to develop in parallel, and obviously, a lot of emphasis on ‘22 with a fresh kind of sheet of paper that we've had.
“So it does knock us back a little bit, but you adapt to that. And there was a re-setting this month. Would I have thrown away the great job that Lando and Dan did in the last race, and podiums?
“Of course not, because we're still here to race. But I think you kind of have to adapt your thinking a little bit on how you split the cars [between 2021 and 2022 aero work] when you are at that end of the scale.”
The 2022 Formula 1 car launch event on the Silverstone grid. Rear wing and diffuser detail
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The good news is that the delta between the aero work that McLaren can do relative to other teams is less than it might have been.
“It is slightly softer this year than originally planned,” says Key. “The gradient between first and 10th was going to be even steeper, and that does steepen up next year. Whether it's the right thing to do or not, I don't know. I mean, we never were really too keen on that idea when it was introduced a while back.
“But equally we saw sense in it, in that at the time, there was a massive disparity between first and 10th, and having the ability to catch up within a cost cap and within a tighter ATR anyway kind of does make sense. Otherwise, you risk being stuck.
"I guess we'll see how it goes next year. And if it causes a see-saw season, one after the next, its clearly not quite the way to go. Maybe we need to soften it off a bit. But short term it's a little bit working against us, I suppose.”
Key insists that it’s still early days for the 2022 project. The learning curve is steep, and there’s still much to be discovered about the new rules, even if they are quite restrictive in many areas.
“The number of devices and the freedoms we have now, even now still produce fairly prolific development rates on current cars,” he says.
“With these big bulk surfaces that you've got on a ‘22 car, it is a different way of developing. So you're looking more at fundamental principles, particularly at this stage, the summer of the year before they race, and trying to get those big box surfaces to work in the right way. And then it's going to be down to the details. .
"And typically, what you see is that a year like this is pretty prolific. We're still learning an awful lot, we're defining our major geometries and architecture now, at this point of the year.
“Then you'll go through this kind of long process leading up to Christmas of almost six months of pure aerodynamic work, once those geometries have been defined.”
The 2022 Formula 1 car launch event on the Silverstone grid. Nose and front wing detail
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
Key says that big steps will be made after the cars begin to run in anger in February next year, and the numbers are crunched. The teams will not only get feedback on their own cars, they will also see what rivals have done.
“You get a couple of kicks. One is you get to see your car on track, and you begin to realise whether you have a correlation somewhere that you could improve, or you begin to recognise the strengths or weaknesses of your car. Maybe there's a few unexpected things.
“And that will cause an immediate kind of priorities to be set in development. And you get that sort of kick in that direction from that.
"And of course, everyone gets to see each other's cars as well. And you might, just as we did this year, with the simple changes we had on the floor, you might see directions where you think, 'Okay, we didn't think of that, that's a good idea let's see if that applies to our car.' “And so you'll then get another kick into next year.
"So I suspect, between now and next year, we're going to see a fairly strong development rate going.
"Maybe next year it will begin to flatten out. But if it flattens out, it means that there's gonna be a lot of close racing. So maybe that's a good thing.
"If it does flatten out, it will lead to ‘23 cars which are mechanically pushed far more to the limit, because then you're going to have to find advantages elsewhere, be they aerodynamic advantages from difficult mechanical design, or mechanical advantages just by going the extra mile there."
Key believes that it’s inevitable that teams are currently pursuing different routes, which will make seeing what everyone has done come winter testing all the more interesting.
“I think everyone will turn up with different interpretations,” he says. “The last time we had a change of this extent was probably 2009, when the whole car changed. And we did see different approaches.
“Double diffusers aside, which ended up becoming commonplace by mid-season, we had various ideas on bodywork, on the chassis, on the nose.
“And eventually they kind of coalesced into something similar. But with less tools at your disposal, I think we'll probably see bigger bulk differences between cars as we launch them next year.”
Photo by: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
McLaren’s 2022 development programme has been complicated by the fact that the team is still using the Toyota wind tunnel in Cologne, pending the construction of its own.
Using a customer tunnel in another country is a less than optimal situation, but the good news is that Woking’s CFD resources are now state of the art – and the timing of the latest upgrade was just right.
“We are aware that we can’t have access to the new facility that we are investing in now,” says Key. “But one of the new facilities that we did invest in that has come through is the upgrades to our CFD hardware.
“I think when you are making big architecture decisions on a car, a lot of that can be modelled out of a wind tunnel environment, for example. The wind tunnel still plays its role in general with a lot of verification data.
“We have tighter regs now on how much CFD and wind tunnel running we can do, so you have to pick and choose your moments when you do that sort of work. Then we can choose the data that we are satisfied with and that we are getting the most out of.
“But the big architectural decisions when you have got big bulk surfaces that you need to develop and format and shape, I think by and large the kit we have is capable of making those decisions at this stage. It is going to be the finer details where we perhaps have a little bit of a disadvantage.”
An important aspect that will only really become apparent once testing starts gets to the crux of the 2022 rules package. Will the cars really be able to follow each other more closely?
“I think it's early days, because there's still a lot of research to be done on a ‘22 car and how it works,” says Key. “But there's a lot of effort that's been put into the regs to keep them true to their objective.
“So when there were kind of potential loopholes or areas of sensitivity which could work against the ability to follow closer than we do now, they were discussed, and typically closed down or modified in some way.
“So I think where we are now, probably, if you released cars mid-2021, then you'd get something pretty close. Beginning of the year, I think they will still be certainly a lot easier to race than current cars, but as teams begin to exploit the finer details of them so that would drift a little bit, I suspect."
The 2022 Formula 1 car launch event on the Silverstone grid. Diffuser detail
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
F1 boss Ross Brawn has made it clear that the door has been left open to make such necessary tweaks for 2023 and beyond, especially if teams have found things that work against those principles of making it easier to follow. If there are any changes they will be an extra curve ball for Key and his team.
“I think normally these are discussed in a very amicable ways,” he says. “There'll be discussion, there'll be some, to and fro-ing, and sensible decisions will be made.
“Teams have got regulations, they've been developed over a long period of time, and obviously, we'll be looking to exploit as much as we can under them. So I think it needs to be a fair process.”
Changes for 2023 are a challenge for another day, and they might not happen. Meanwhile McLaren is pressing on with interpreting the rules as they are currently written, and looking for any advantage that can be claimed.
“I've enjoyed the fact that we're all bought into what we're trying to do as a team,” says Key. “And the fact that we've looked at it in, I suppose, a very conceptual way from the outset, which the team has kind of accepted and done very well, too.
"I think if we can begin to hit those early milestones fairly soon and in the right way, and having given it our best shot then hopefully it'll just be a case of continuing with our plan into next year, and hoping that we've ticked all the boxes."
The 2022 Formula 1 car launch event on the Silverstone grid
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
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