The Theory of evolution - MP4-21

By on

McLaren Racing's team of top-class engineers is building on the strengths of last season's car to design the MP4-21. During the final stages of the process, Racing Line spent some time at McLaren Racing to uncover the secrets of the 2006 challenger.

There's a saying at McLaren Racing, which goes like this: "Progress is not always made by reasonable men." What does it mean? It means this is a team pushing hard. Very hard.

"We are demanding of each other," confides Managing Director Jonathan Neale, "but the teamwork here is fantastic." As he points out, they put 28 trophies into the cabinet last season. It was confirmation of the skills of the team's 135 engineers. At the head of this mountain of talent are several key figures who will carry this confidence forward with the MP4-21.

Chief Engineer of the car is Tim Goss, supported by Engineering Director Paddy Lowe and Executive Director of Engineering Neil Oatley. Heading up the Aerodynamic Development is Peter Prodromou, Chief Designer is Mike Coughlan and Head of Race Engineering is Steve Hallam. Together they make a formidable team, with as many years spent in research departments as at racetracks. In fact, between them they have been working at McLaren for 80 years. No wonder the MP4-20 was so successful.

"The programme for this year is being headed up by Tim Goss," explains Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula 1, Team McLaren Mercedes. "He is the person who has looked at the way in which the regulation changes for 2006 impact upon the programme. He has also assessed the performance and reliability of the MP4-20."

Goss works closely with Lowe and beneath them are four key departments. The aerodynamic team, headed by Prodromou, conducts much of the initial research in the wind tunnel. Meanwhile, vehicle design, under Coughlan's direction, is responsible for realising the car. They are joined by the simulation and race-engineering sections, which respectively test new ideas and consider their usability.

"These departments have different roles in determining the specification for the vehicle, and delivering against it," says Whitmarsh. "Within this engineering organisation, there are a range of research and development tasks and techniques which are used to develop approaches which will enhance the performance of the car.

"We are also supported by our Technology Partners and Official Suppliers, who with their own research and development programmes, help us to achieve our goals in complex and short time frames."

Research into a direction for the MP4-21 began in August 2004, when Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines started to consider the new V8 power plant. In October of that year, McLaren Racing began research into revised engine system concepts.

In early 2005, the aerodynamic group began looking at improvements to the MP4-20, along with blue-sky ideas. The car was divided into fundamentals such as chassis and front and rear axles, and projects for the MP4-20 that had not been fully researched were considered. This development programme - covering everything from control systems to suspension arrangement - was carried out while the 2005 Formula 1 World Championship was just starting.

Each aerodynamic component conceived by Prodromou and his department was received by the aerodynamic design group and translated into a specification, destined either for Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) or wind tunnel testing. Once this research was complete it would be handed as a CAD model to the design group, who refined the model to prepare it for manufacture. At the same time, Goss was pulling together a specification for the MP4-21, with input from all the senior engineers. This input included ideas from Coughlan and his team of design heads, specialists in areas such as front and rear suspension and transmission.

"From May 2005 onwards we began holding design review meetings every two weeks," explains Lowe. "Chaired by Tim [Goss], these meetings involved a report from each of the design heads and other senior engineers, so we evolved the specification of the MP4-21. We produced the technical specification, a document that outlines the headline objectives, detailed definitions and the identification of potential risks."

According to Lowe, there were three strands that the engineers had to consider when designing the MP4-21. "Firstly, dealing with the rule changes and the opportunities they presented for re-optimisation," he explains. "Secondly, the general input of the research and latest ideas for making the car quicker than the year before. Thirdly, improvements to make the MP4-21 more reliable, whether it was how long parts last for or how easy they are to maintain."

However, the team would not commit to the use of any part until an advanced range of techniques had been used to research and define the specification. These include the wind tunnel, CFD, Finite Element Analysis (FEA), simulation and test rigs. "With the MP4-21A we have made sure we use these techniques to the full to prove out any new features," says Goss. "In particular our simulation capability has advanced to the stage where we can explore some of the more subtle characteristics in suspension geometry, suspension compliance and aerodynamic sensitivities. It means we have much greater confidence in the performance of the finished product before it hits the track." Ask Goss what the biggest challenge has been in designing the MP4-21 and, along with the rest of the team's engineers, he will answer "rule changes". The biggest of these is undoubtedly that affecting the engine.

"The change to a 2.4-litre V8 engine with accompanying material restrictions has given all the engine suppliers a major challenge in a limited timescale," he says. "At McLaren Racing we have provided a supporting role to Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines, and the supply of the MP4-20B mule car for engine testing has been a valuable part of this assistance."

As well as the need to design a completely new power unit, the engine change also involves looking at ancillary areas such as the cooling system, air and oil consumption, and the fuel supply. Meanwhile, for Prodromou and his aero team, it also opened up the opportunity for repackaging the rear of the car. "It is one of the fundamental areas we looked at, so a lot of effort has been put into exploiting the fact that there is a V8 engine," he says.

Another focus has been on the deflector and barge board area, as a new regulation stipulates that the forward deflectors ahead of the reference plane must be raised by 50mm. "This is very significant for the aerodynamics," says Prodromou. "It is at the front of the car, so you cannot ignore it. We could have derived a solution very quickly by taking what we had last year and raising it by 50mm, but the implications are significant, so a lot of research has gone into this area. We have made leaps and strides in recouping the lost downforce this regulation brings."

For Coughlan's design group, one major area of focus has been dealing with an alteration to the mandatory crash test for the rear structure of the car. "There has been a 50 per cent increase in the amount of energy that the car must absorb, making the test a 2000bhp event," says Coughlan. "We are quite pleased with what we have done, but it was hard."

In addition to the technical regulations, there are also sporting rule changes for 2006, including a new qualifying format and the re-introduction of tyre changes during a race. Team McLaren Mercedes has already been testing new compounds and constructions with Michelin, with the drivers helping to develop these, along with the rest of the car. Naturally, their input is crucial. "The car's performance is determined by physics, but to make it useable it has to be drivable," says Neale. "That means understanding each driver's style and optimising the car for both Juan Pablo and Kimi - it has to be adjustable. The drivers are a huge part of the development process."

The MP4-21 is scheduled to hit the test track later this month. To the naked eye, it is destined to look very similar to its predecessor. However, do not underestimate the innovation and thousands of man-hours that have gone into developing this racing car. Indeed, as the MP4-21 neared completion, the 55-strong design department was producing 500 drawings a week.

"McLaren Racing is a high performance organisation," concludes Neale. "We have structured R&D across a range of initiatives and we expect our designers to be innovative with their knowledge." With the team already planning upgrades to the base spec of the MP4-21, it's clear that come the first race in Bahrain, we'll see the debut of a highly evolved species.

Source McLaren