The comeback

Save of the Century
How did McLaren start the season with a car that was way off the pace and turn it into a winner? Some key players provide an insight
By Paul Fearnley

Lewis Hamilton’s car-to-pit whoop was loud – and spoke volumes. For the first time in 2009 he’d kept his foot in without fear of being spat into the scenery. At last McLaren MP4-24 was planted in the fast stuff. From here it could grow.

The preceding eight GPs had brought the World Champion just nine points, from an average grid position of 14th. The remaining nine would bring him two wins and 40 points – only Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel scored more, 45 – from an average grid position of fifth. This remarkable turnaround was achieved despite a testing ban and during the most competitive season – grids covered by a second – for years. So how did McLaren Racing do it?

JONATHAN NEALE (MD of McLaren Racing) We held our nerve…

PAT FRY (Chief engineer McLaren MP4-24) …and there wasn’t any infighting or bickering. We just got down to it, focused, did the best
we could.

JN You’ve hit the nail. The entire organisation confronted it. We’ve worked in teams that have torn themselves apart trying to work out what’s wrong with a car. Ours was a very rational piece of work: use science and engineering – you’ve got to use the numbers – then just graft.

PADDY LOWE (Engineering director) Aerodynamic development is 90 per cent sweat and effort and only 10 per cent inspiration. You can have all the great ideas you like, but, er, you’ve got to put them through a [wind] tunnel [development work that was also restricted by the FIA during 2009]. The problem was huge. MP4-24 looked the part – only Adrian Newey’s Red Bull RB5 beat it in the beauty stakes – but this proved deceptive.

JN Week 11, day one, 11 o’clock: the first ‘Oh my God!’

PL We put our final race upgrade on the car [at a Barcelona pre-season test] and it was still 2.4 off. Firstly, you don’t believe the time sheets: ‘Nah, can’t be.’

PF But the reality was we’d bolted over a second onto the car in terms of upgrades, gone a second a lap quicker, but were still two seconds off.

JN We’d spent everything, laid everything out. Does this work, does that work? Yes, yes, yes. So why are we still off the pace?

PF The management was like, ‘Can we put the upgrades on now?’ No, no…

JN …they’re on! I was sweating. Martin [Whitmarsh, CEO] came into my office at 10 o’clock – we were glued to the timing screens – and asked, ‘Are we in trouble?’ I said I needed another hour. He came back later and the answer was, ‘Yeah, I think we are.’ We put 40-50 people in a meeting room to bring them up to the same level of knowledge, and Martin joined us. I thought he’d give us a broadside,
but he was really good. His reaction was an encouragement: ‘This is where we are. Let’s face it. Let’s dig our way out.’

This process would involve ugly moments that would have been anathema to Ron Dennis-era McLaren: unpainted nose cones, hand-finished and crude (for F1) parts, unsightly flow-viz paint – all admissions that this perfectionist team was tumbling, scrambling. But private tests at RAF Kemble were no longer an option. This dirty air would have to be washed in public.

JN We were running at such a pace that we were pushing things through on the raggy edge. It was never a safety issue, but it did cause cosmetics that you wouldn’t normally see on a McLaren. We’ve had a number of conversations about whether Fablon is an engineering material.

PL We did a massive amount for Australia, though: 30 updates.

Hamilton lined up 18th in Melbourne, a gearbox change had knocked him back three places, but using the new KERS system to brilliant effect he raced to an uplifting third – until the stewards were misled and he was disqualified. The team, reeling, had no option but to plough on.

PL We were constantly updating our car during the first four races, the flyaways, using every latest idea that came out of the tunnel. We could see that the other teams were not on the same rate of deployment but assumed their tunnels were working at the same rate as ours. So we knew that when we got to Spain [round five] that they’d leap back ahead of us because they’d deploy all their new stuff in one hit.

PF But you just had to embrace [race-weekend] Fridays as tests. Either you want to learn or you don’t. I would have flow-vizzed the car even if it had been quick. Some of this stuff wasn’t necessarily crisis-management. We were doing the same things in Singapore [late September].

PL We needed the numbers. And this required a cultural shift from the race team. They’re used to being the final delivery place for sorted, tidy, ready-to-race cars. The idea of testing on a Friday was foreign.

PF In Malaysia we flew bits of a floor out, cut it up in the garage…

JN …oh, don’t…

PF …and tested it the next day. Hand to mouth.

PL We had a night shift of carbon fabricators.

Even so, it wouldn’t be until July that McLaren truly joined the double diffuser gang. In the meantime its tweaks, including a token-gesture double diffuser by Shanghai, brought the excellent Hamilton improving results: seventh in Malaysia, sixth in China, fourth at KERS-friendly Bahrain. But, as anticipated, he slipped in Spain: ninth, from 14th on the grid. At Monaco, understandably overeager to make use of MP4-24’s excellent low-speed grip and compliance – familiar McLaren strengths – he hit the barriers in qualifying. Back of the grid. At Istanbul and Silverstone, the swoops and the sweeps, he was a helpless passenger. Four big fat zeroes in a row. Germany brought a fifth – but hope, too. McLaren – and KERS – had been written off. The former had been too conservative, constitutionally incapable of adopting the aggressive design approach demanded – and achieved by Red Bull and Brawn – by the radical aero reg changes; the latter’s shot of power was watered down by inherent packaging penalties. MP4-24 was a dog, muzzled and tethered. The excuse that McLaren had focused too hard, too long on its ’08 title fights carried no truck with some: it was big enough to multi-task, surely?

PL But we’ve got finite resources. We’ve [only] got one tunnel – Honda [the future Brawn GP] had four on its 2009 project – and though ours is a good tunnel, sharing it among two uncomplimentary programmes inevitably means you are down on effort. It did worry us [for ’09], but we had to do it.

PF That doesn’t mean we are excusing ourselves. Even with the capacity we had, we could have done a better job. We had looked at doing something similar [to a double diffuser], around Christmas 2007. We had all the ideas but didn’t have the resource to run two programmes. So we had a whole year thinking about it…

PL …but not using that rule, that loophole [air-channelling 50mm-high slots – not holes, heaven forfend – between the horizontal underbody reference planes].

PF MP4-24 wasn’t unadventurous, though. It had KERS on it, a significant project. Getting that onto a car with an acceptable offset…

PL …in terms of not penalising performance…

PF …was a huge challenge.

PL KERS takes quite a lot of management and does have offsets: it weighs a lot [in F1 terms] and that reduces your freedom to use ballast to play with the car’s configuration. That did affect us quite badly at the beginning.

PF But where we were resource-limited was the aero side. That’s where we were struggling. We all had a fairly good idea of what target we needed to reach, and we knew we were missing it. We hadn’t screwed up something like stiffness, hadn’t done something fundamentally wrong which would have been even harder to track down, we just hadn’t done enough. We hadn’t bolted enough downforce onto it.

The double diffusers used by Brawn, Toyota and Williams from the season’s start were reckoned to be worth half a second per lap: Hamilton was 1.45sec off in Q1 in Australia, more than half a second slower than the single-diffuser Ferraris.

JN Our drivers played a huge role. Pedro [de la Rosa, test driver] worked brilliantly with us in the simulator; Lewis, even when we were seconds off, never left any performance in the garage. It would’ve been easy for the drivers to turn on the team. Instead, they were our confidence-builders. The whole factory could see they were working their socks off.

PL Manufacturing pulled all the stops out, too.

PF There were 17 iterations of floor during the season. In terms of major changes, there were four. The third appeared in Germany [for Hamilton only]. This was our big step forward.

But a double diffuser, of which this was a fully-fledged version, is not a bolt-on quick fix, an instant five-tenths.

PL The teams that had integrated them from the start had months to work at it. Having been given what is effectively a new rule [the FIA’s Court of Appeal declared double diffusers legal on April 14], you can’t just leap in and maximise it. A lot of the early work we did in the tunnel didn’t bring better numbers, and I heard that from a number of teams. It took us six weeks/two months to find out how to use it. Our T3 floor was the first designed from the outset to exploit that loophole.

T3 arrived in Germany in conjunction with a new front wing (a more curved footplate), sidepods wider at the rear and a tipping-point weight-reduction.

PF Some of our concepts, the interaction of front-wing endplates to tongued hubcaps, stuff like that, you could say we spent too long on, though they were working well in the tunnel. Now we stepped back, changed the endplate concept [which had been unfashionably plain Jane and in-flow rather than out-] and went with it. That front wing was worth something like six points of downforce, the floor between 15 and 20. [One point is worth four-hundredths.] There was also a very good weight-saving from the top body and floor. The whole package was probably worth about eight-tenths.

JN Didn’t we take out more weight than previously?

PF Normally you’re dreaming up little turning vanes here and there and the weight creeps up. Five to 8kg over a year is typical. We reversed that trend…

PL …at the same time as doing aero upgrades…

PF …and were 8kg lighter by the end. Things like rear-wing elements we had made quickly, made quite heavy. Cut-and-shut floors are never as light as those from scratch. We worked hard on it. A gradual saving through the year.

PL We developed a short-wheelbase car [a 75mm reduction], too. We felt we’d hit the wrong baseline for weight distribution – too far rearwards – and couldn’t adjust it with ballast because of KERS’ extra weight. It was a big project kicked off ‘at risk’. We deployed it at Valencia [for Hamilton, who finished second], but by that time the parallel weight loss had given us the headroom we needed
for weight redistribution. That overtook the wheelbase change.

That car was not seen again. Third on the grid in Germany, Hamilton’s bid to maximise his KERS advantage off the line saw him clip eventual winner Mark Webber and collect a rear puncture at the first corner. In Hungary two weeks later, however, an astute KERS move saw him clear the potentially faster Red Bull man to secure his first win of the season (above).

In the same way that four flyaway races in five weeks had mitigated against McLaren’s initial recovery, a reinvigorated, increasingly confident and aggressive team was now faced by a slew of tracks that suited it: the long straights-heavy brakes of Monza and the stop-starts of Valencia, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Hamilton took pole at all of them – and won brilliantly at Singapore – but it was the third places he scored at the less propitious Suzuka and Interlagos (the latter from 17th on the grid after being caught out by a wet Q1) that suggested McLaren had almost completely turned things around, to the point that it was bringing forward 2010 developments.

PL Because the grids are so close now, circuit-dependency has become more dominant. What I found encouraging was that we had the potential pace to win eight of the last nine races. I don’t think any other team had that general level of performance.

PF If you look at the circuits where we were quick, they’re about good low-speed downforce and grip, and where KERS is a reasonable player. The underlining characteristic of our car is still there, it’s just that we’ve boosted its performance across the board.

By a whopping 2.8 seconds.

PL Somebody put that number to me and I went away and looked at it and concluded it was roughly right. It’s more than usual. In 2007 and ’08, during our great competitions with Ferrari, we probably found a couple of seconds.

JN [Admittedly] We were coming from a long way behind, but a tenth per Grand Prix is more normal. We learned a lot this season. Some things we need to unwind and go back to a more steady state, but in terms of some lead times, ways of manufacturing items, the discipline surrounding the gathering of data, the validation of models, we won’t be reverting to ‘normal’. We’re a different animal now.

As is F1. For instance…

PF Testing would have been a drain on the resource; we would have been trying to make [even] more bits, test them and race them. In the situation we were in, playing catch-up, we got there quicker because we weren’t testing.

We put 60 points of downforce on even though the bits you can adjust – deflectors, winglets, flick-ups – have been massively reduced.

At Abu Dhabi, Hamilton was on pole by more than six-tenths (by five when fuel-corrected), four of which could be attributed to KERS. There will be no KERS in 2010 – there will be narrower front tyres and larger fuel tanks, too – but the aero regs are the same. McLaren’s heroic efforts of 2009, therefore, should ensure it far fewer big fat zeroes in 2010. Whoop it up, Lewis.