Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes MP4-23
After everything, they should have painted it red and adorned it wîth a horse rearing up into the air. Then it would have been seen whether people had a sense of humor.
Last year was filled wîth controversy, a level greater than that of the era when Prost and Senna were teammates if that were possible. Things looked very promising and very quickly began to unravel into utter turmoil. After a winless 2006 season for McLaren (which was the first time in over a decade that happened), things were lòòking brighter. Gone were both Raikkonen and Montoya who just could not unify the team and make the car better. McLaren was able to secure Fernando Alonso, the two-time and reigning world champion. And oh yeah…there was this other driver named Lewis Hamilton. Yes, this Lewis guy may be an unknown, but the team still had Alonso. And yet, things changed...fast.
Initially it all looked good. Despite the dominant win by Raikkonen in Melbourne, Alonso was able to come home second wîth Hamilton amazingly following in short order. Hamilton kept pace wîth Alonso, in fact outpaced Fernando many times. But this competitiveness should have been a warning sign to the team. Soon frustrations toward the new hotshot began to well up within the reigning world champion. Alonso began to feel slighted by the team. It seemed the number one was being treated the same as number one hundred and one. And then there was 'spygate'. Those technical Ferrari team files found on a McLaren-Mercedes team computer signaled McLaren's end in the fight for the Constructors championship, but not the Drivers'. Despite all these distractions, McLaren-Mercedes reemerged from the grave.
The MP4-22 appeared bullet-proof and very competitive. Each driver only suffered one DNF apiece and those were the result of driver error and not a mechanical problem wîth the car. The team would also go on to grab eight poles out of the possible seventeen races. But after the many disagreements between Alonso and Ron Dennis, the pure frustration within the team, and then finally the disqualification of the team from the Constructors title chase, it seemed as though the wheels were coming off of the proverbial wagon. But the really interesting thing about all of this is that all of these struggles really had nothing to do wîth the car; nothing at all.
The MP4-22 of a year ago was probably the most radical of any car on the grid. The McLaren chassis was adorned wîth more sculpted curves, winglets and turning vanes than most experimental aircraft. Truly, only the aerodynamicist could have looked at and loved the MP4-22. And yet, it captured the eye. But of course, more importantly, it worked. The car was quick, stable and reliable. There then was at least a good foundation in which to build upon for 2008. However, that foundation has been rocked again, but by the new FIA regulations (see Ferrari F2008 article).
These changes have literally altered the approach every team has had to take in the design of their car. And while many of these new rule changes have impacted what's found under the skin of these Formula One cars, the McLaren-Mercedes design team went to work redesigning the outside of the car in an attempt to counter the effect of the loss of many of the electronic aids that helped make last year's MP4-22 such a great car.
The lawsuit and the subsequent disqualification from the Constructors championship race must have hurt McLaren-Mercedes financially as this year's launch was much more low-key than the kingly ordination that occurred last year in the streets of Valencia, Spain. Of course, gone from the team is the king of Spain—Fernando Alonso.
For the first time, since the partnership between McLaren and Mercedes, the MP4-23 was unveiled to the world at the Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart. With people lining the railings of the multi-level museum and flanked on both sides by special quests and the press, the car rolled down the Mercedes museum's specially built runway, but this curvaceous beauty is no frail model. A barrage of flashes lit the room as the car rested quietly, flanked by its two race drivers and two test-drivers.
The first casual observations reveal only a few changes from last year's design. But upon a closer examination, the MP4-23 has many design changes. The front wing on the MP4-22 went through many refinements over last season. It started out wîth a very smooth sculpted leading edge wîth a rather deep scoop under the nose. By the end of the season, the leading edge of the front wind remain sculpted but wîth much more abrupt changes. Instead of a gentle arching scoop it became more u-shaped or box-like. This design has remained but wîth some refinements, and will continue to be refined before the first race in Australia. The MP4-23 was void of the upper wing profile that spanned over the nose, endplate-to endplate, but it will probably re-emerge. The 2008 car also offers a higher nose than that of a year ago. The zero-keel design has remained and wîth the higher nose will allow greater airflow to the splitter under the driver's legs, which allows for better control of airflow to help the chassis remain more stable as this airflow is less disturbed.
Traveling back from the nose, there are many new updates in design. The bargeboards and turning vanes have been highly refined and appear to be a maze of wings and airflow control devices seemingly capable of controlling and directing every single air molecule. The 'ears', near the cockpit are gone and the sidepod shields are much more incorporated into the radiator and sidepod design. The radiators remain bulb shaped and tightly contoured toward the cockpit. The sidepod shields have been redesigned in such a way as to help control airflow around the sidepods and to the back of the car. This is done by not merely attaching the shields to the sidepod, but actually making the shields part of the sidepod's design. As wîth last year, the shield is incorporated into the chimney. This helps to provide a continuous surface in which is useful to control airflow and to help keep the airflow relatively undisturbed as it passes around the car. As is required wîth every team, the side protectors that go around the driver's head have been raised. But the changes don't here.
The airbox above the driver's head has been redesigned to help prevent excess drag due to disturbed air that happens as the air flows over the driver's helmet. This turbulent air can build up and can disturb or hinder airflow. To counter this, the airbox has been moved back a little and has small splitters incorporated to help keep the air moving backward and not disturbing the overall flow of air. Small turning vanes have been added to keep the air tight to the engine cowling, thus directing the airflow as it heads back toward the rear of the car and so it can merge wîth other airflow, again, relatively undisturbed.
The engine cowling, this year, is tighter giving it a greater dorsal fin look to; again, help stabilize the car at the rear. The general contour of the car at the rear is much tighter and lower, helping wîth airflow exiting the car and striking the rear wing. The rear-wheel flip-ups have a much more extended leading edge than on the MP4-22 of a year ago. This too helps wîth airflow over the rear tires and to the rear wing. The shrouds on the inside of the rear tires have been redesigned. They have been altered to help direct the air away from the rear wheel, which helps prevent drag due to the turbulence the spinning wheels create. The lower and tighter rear bodywork, in conjunction wîth these shrouds, has created a deep channel in which to direct the air toward the rear of the car and over the lower wing element before exiting the car. McLaren have retained the mid-span wing that attaches to the tip of the engine cowling. This helps to separate the air and minimize turbulence as the air approaches the rear wing or is passing under the wing and out the back of the car.
As for the rear wing, there were a number of changes that occurred last season that have been retained in the MP4-23's design. The MP4-22's rear wing mounting pylons were angled back toward the rear of the car. In an effort to try and counter anything that might disrupt smooth airflow, the McLaren designers moved the angle of the pylons forward, toward the engine cowling. By pulling the pylons closer to the car's engine cowling it helped to reduce disruptions to the airflow as it flowed out of the rear of the car. This kept the airflow disturbances to a minimum, and therefore, helped the stability of the car at the rear.
The leading edge contour of the rear wing also changed throughout last season. The final evolution of the rear wing design for the MP4-22, and what has remained for this year's car, is a design where the vertical depth of the rear wing was significantly less where the wing attached to the endplates. In Formula One everything gets tweaked. And it was found that there was a tremendous amount of turbulence where the endplates met the rear wing. To overcome that, shark-fin style grooves were cut in the endplates to provide a means of escape for the air that built up in that area. It was also realized that having a rather straight leading edge caused that build up of turbulence to affect the smooth airflow trying to exit the car underneath the wing. So to counter causing further drag to airflow out the back of the car, and also, to help overcome the turbulence and drag that built up where the endplates met the rear wing the vertical depth of the wing portion near the endplate was reduced. Given the benefits such a design offers it is little wonder this concept has at least remained in some form on McLaren's newest challenger.
Despite the loss of traction control, the MP4-23 will still have, at the driver's beckon-call, one of F1's best engines. Last year proved the Mercedes 2.4 liter V8 has the power to propel its drivers to the front and keep them there, as it also proved to be bullet-proof over race distances. The biggest issue this year will be for the driver to keep their own foot under control.
Team Principal Ron Dennis said this was a year for 'Looking forward', not for dwelling on the past. And last year was a past the team would rather forget, although the numbers 22 and 23 on the nose of the cars will not help. McLaren has never been far from controversy, as is the case wîth most of the top teams. Each team seeks that edge, whether that edge is found wîth an unbelievable driver lineup or wîth technical information perhaps 'borrowed' from another team. But last year proved that McLaren-Mercedes is back from its embarrassing no win season of 2006. And if the team can come together, and the politics on and off the track can disappear, then it will be Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes laughing…all the way to the title.