The revolutionary car, which probably had more media coverage than any other car in F1 in 2003 is best described by Neil Oatley: "A lot of effort, a lot of time has gone into the '18' spread over a longer period of time so I think we've ended up with a structurally superior car, much more tightly packaged, much more weight-efficient, and we are expecting quite a significant improvement in lap times because of all of that".
The long awaited revolution
Since the team had trouble keeping up with the record-breaking Ferrari F2002, team principal Ron Dennis decided a giant leap was needed to get back in front. To facilitate such a step forward, Arrows' chief designer Mike Coughlan was attracted to assist Adrian Newey in developing the brand new car, while another project was started to update the MP4/17 to race during the first races in 2003.
In what was the most expensive development program ever seen in F1 until then, the MP4/18 was destined to be McLaren's racecar during the 2003 season. Development however wasn't the smoothest of rides, and testing rapidly showed severe deficiencies.
Overheating in the sidepods and of the engine, several violent crashes were just a few of the problems the team encountered early on. The aerodynamic design of the sidepods for instance was such that the team went extreme in the side protection systems, making the car fail the FIA side impact crash test twice, causing further delay in its development.
The problems eventually forced McLaren to revise their plans, opting to use the MP4/17D throughout the entire 2003 season. The McLaren factory meanwhile went on with testing and development of the MP4/18, eventually resulting in the MP4/19 which was the team's contender in 2004.
Twin keel nosecone
Mike Coughlan is considered to be a twin keel specialist, since he had successful experience with that in his latest design for Arrows, the A23. It was therefore not a surprise to see the car hit the track sporting a twin keel configuration under the nose. As explained in the glossary, the twin keel configuration benefits a smooth airflow under the nose and onto the splitter (which guides the air into the sidepods). There are somehow also reasons to not make use of this configuration, such as a slightly less efficient front suspension, and an extra difficulty towards strength.
For the first time ever on a Formula One car, this twin keel system has been combined with a waved front wing, like Williams' FW25 has been using for most of the Grand Prix' during 2003. The idea of the waved wing was however not stolen from Williams, since an MP4/17 was spotted with such a wing during winter testing in January 2003. These types of front wings tend to behave more like diffusers, where a lower pressure under the wing is more and more important to suck the nose down.
The front wing with twin keel nose is one thing, but the positioning of this front wing on the nose, and the shape of it is a completely different subject. Just like most other parts of the car, this layout is new, and not seen in recent years of F1.
However, Adrian Newey has admitted his idea was inspired by his working period with March in the beginning of the 1990's. The front wing is now in fact the first part that cuts the air. This might be beneficial in terms of smooth airflow, but may be harmful in eventual touches with other cars. The nose tip is the lowest to the ground seen since the introduction of high noses in F1. This might be to slow the airflow above the nose, and thereby create a bigger pressure difference above and under the nosecone. I have always been convinced that this approach may be much more efficient than a very high nose, since it increases driver visibility, and generates downforce.
The rear part of the car might be even more revolutionary, but was also the cause of problems with the MP4/18. It is therefore in this part that we notice the most changes between both "twin" cars.
As said earlier, the main reason for developing this car was because of the F2002. That car shone because its very small sidepods, especially towards the end of the car, compared to its competitors. McLaren was aware of this problem, and paid extra attention to these aerodynamic parts to allow more air in a better flow towards the rear wing. The following images provide a comparison between the three different cars. At the left, you can see the right rear section of the MP4/17. The pod is much higher and wider than on the following two cars, which may hinder the amount of air going to the rear wing. The flipup however has been maintained from the MP4/17 until the MP4/19. The second picture shows the configuration with which the Mp4/18 appeared on track during the testing sessions at Paul Ricard. The last picture shows the rear end of the MP4/19. You can clearly see that the small winglet has been redesigned, together with the flipup that is now a little wider. The sidepod itself lowers even steeper than on the 18, and appears to be a little more rounded. Close watchers should also have seen that the small bump in the shape of the sidepod (which was there because the radiator did not perfectly fit in) has been worked away.
It must also be said that, while the MP4/19 is provided with a completely new airbox and bonnet, compared to the MP4/18. The side surface of the engine cover is made larger, most likely influenced by the fact that talks are going on between teams to set a minimum airbox area to attract sponsors.
Anyway, the heat problems on the MP4/18 are not just a simple problem. It is a true fact that cooling in the sidepods is mainly done be uncompressing air. Air is then pulled through radiators, and also pulled out of the back of the sidepod. The problem with the new car is that there is little space in that sidepod, and therefore no decompression if there's no more area available for a certain amount of air. The first picture shows that in its initial design, the MP4/18 was not provided with any upper exhaust, whether it was for exiting air or exhaust gases. In a second test, this was quickly the case (second picture). Besides the wholes just behind the painted red arrows, the cover had extra cooling wholes to allow hot air to flow away. However, since this was not enough, the MP4/19 goes one step further. Because of the very hot air, the outer elements that might suffer from that air (bodywork and rear suspension arms) are now shielded with a heat protective layer.
Since the beryllium affair, McLaren Mercedes had been suffering to be the top of all packages, but Mercedes have designed a completely new engine for the MP4/18. The engine is said to be lighter, and topping the charts with about 920hp. Since the 18 will never be used in races (equipped with P spec of the new Mercedes V10), an evolution of that engine, namely the Q spec, will have to deliver top performances, together with high reliability because of the new engine regulations that only permit one engine per race weekend.