Insight -- McLaren's title defence
A real hundred per cent
The World Championship not yet won, Ron Dennis is already building for 1992 as McLaren takes aboard the lesson of its toughest season
At the beginning of 1991 it all seemed so simple. Ayrton Senna was going to waltz away with his third World Championship after a record run of four consecutive victories got his campaign off to the best possible start. After 12 races, of course, the Brazilian nursed an 18 point lead as the series moved into the final four events, and McLaren Honda is now fending off a mighty challenge from Williams Renault.
Notwithstanding that opening salvo, there have since been suggestions along the pit lane that if McLaren had got its cars ready sooner at the beginning of the year it might be in a better position to avoid the mid-season performance slumps that characterised both its 1990 and ’91 campaigns. When McLaren International MD Ron Dennis relishes such suggestions, his wolfish smile is at its best.
“The first thing I’d say to that is that our year-to-year strategy, whilst appearing to be the same, is very rarely anything other than similar. Similar in the sense that there are a range of circumstances that determine the timing of a new car launch; the most significant of those are either something that you’ve discovered that requires further deep understanding, like aerodynamics: ground effect, coke bottle shape. Or a significant engine specification change, such as a V10 to a V12, turbo to normally aspirated. Or a change of make. Or a regulation change. Any of those things can significantly impact on your time to optimise the car design, on the date on which the car is first tested. What we do is almost regularly leave the building date of the car very late in order to have as much of the research and development process incorporated into the original design. Most experienced racing people — all disciplines — will support the theory that pretty much what you start with is what you’ve got for the season, plus or minus a relatively small percentage. And the most significant thing starting with a new car is reliability. Can you achieve it without having to verify the soundness of the design? Our performance in the last five years speaks for itself. It may be strong to say it vindicates us, but. . .” Going back even to 1984, McLaren has won six out of the eight opening races.
“We were under no illusions during the first four 1991 events about the weaknesses and strengths in our MP4/6 package, and some of the benefits and performance improvements that started to manifest themselves in Hungary were commenced during the period of the Canadian Grand Prix and the days leading up to it. After losing that race, and Williams having gone so well there, we started to focus on all the areas of the car with which we weren’t completely satisfied. At the same time, like any good partnership, we sat with Honda and discussed each other’s performance weaknesses and developed a strategy based on what was possible to achieve for each of the following Grands Prix.
“In essence I think back in June I was predicting it would be Hungary before we looked like being back competitive, and possibly a race longer. And therefore the return to competitiveness is not particularly surprising to us because that was our objective as mapped out at the end of May. There was a whole range of improvements, not one thing, and the full benefit of those improvements will be felt incrementally right through to the last Grand Prix of the season.”
The bottom line at McLaren, as it always has been since the Dennis era began in 1981, is to focus on winning, while maintaining the morale of a workforce that has been weaned on success.
“One message that I try to convey to everyone at McLaren, and which is well supported by Honda as well, is that if we are reflecting in Australia on having failed to win this year’s World Championship, we must be able to feel we gave it a real hundred per cent. There is a tremendous effort a phenomenal effort gone into improving the performance. From Honda, from Shell, from McLaren.”
In the past 18 months the true importance of the fuel companies has become more appreciated by those outside the individual teams as Championship battles have escalated, and it is now common knowledge that a good fuel can be worth more than 40bhp.
Dennis firmly stresses that the contribution of the third factor in the triumvirate has always been vital.
“I think the fuel companies have always been important, but their contribution has not always been so obvious. These days their role is a little more complex because developing special fuels isn’t just about mixing ingredients. You have to optimise the engine for a given fuel.” The companies admit that they produce different fuels depending on the number of an engine’s cylinders, so specific has the art now become. “The fuel needs to be compatible with the geometry of the combustion chamber,” continues Ron, warming to an engineering theme. “That geometry is significantly influenced by the bore and therefore stroke of the engine. As you go up in cylinders the bore/stroke configuration changes significantly, which has a great significance on combustion chamber shape and therefore requires fuel that has different burn characteristics.”
McLaren, Honda and Shell have, more than ever before, been put under very direct public scrutiny in 1991, through the continued challenge from Williams, Renault and Elf, and each factor has been seen to respond positively and successfully. For its part, Honda produced a radically revised version of its Specification 3 RA121E V12 in time for Hungary. Development at Waco has always been continuous, but its ability to produce within 30 days a unit with new cylinder heads and a markedly lighter block, and to add variable intake trumpets at the next race, throws into cruel relief Porsche’s efforts just to get its cumbersome V12 to the point where it runs reliably, let alone where it can race. Nobody is even dreaming of victory at the moment in Stuttgart and Weissach. “This year, and especially the last three or four months,” says Dennis, “has strengthened dramatically the relationship which was always good between Honda and McLaren, and even improved our relationship with Shell because we all have a common objective. It’s a very difficult challenge, and to get together and make it work takes a special effort.”
How does he quantify the respective inputs into the competitiveness equation made by McLaren, Honda and Shell since the Williams onslaught got into its mid-season stride? The answer is, perhaps, predictable, but doesn’t smack of diplomacy. “It’s important not to get too focussed on any one performance area. I would say the improvement in our results could be equally shared between the engine, the chassis and the fuel. Probably, in the time that’s left between now and the end of the season, the area in which we will find the most benefit will be in improving the aerodynamics of the car. We have to ensure that we’re making positive steps. There will be other steps, lesser ones than we’ve made but in all areas.”
Ayrton Senna has not been backwards in coming forwards with criticism of the package he has had to drive this season, and one sometimes feels that all one hears from him when he wins is nothing but a list of the car’s shortcomings (much at the beginning concentrated on the engine, but later the chassis came in for stick too). It reflected the current tendency wherein a driver has just won a race, but quantifies that success in negative terms.
“No driver criticises his team with a view to damaging, upsetting or demotivating it,” says Dennis, “and the comments are usually made quite close to the end of a Grand Prix when the drivers aren’t perhaps as clear-headed as they should be. Nevertheless, they are designed to increase the pressure on the team to perform. I understand it. Sometimes you can accept it with good grace, sometimes it would have been better if they’d had the benefit of knowing what condition the car was in after the race before commenting. There are many times when they think it’s A problem, when it’s actually B problem.” At Monza, for example, Berger incorrectly suspected a damper fault for his car’s poor handling.
If you ask him to quantify the changes made to the MP4/6 (known to include a number of aerodynamic nuances and lighter bodywork), he frowns. “Really, it wasn’t one big thing that we changed. We changed many, many little things. We literally went through every single component and, where possible, further optimised its weight. We put in a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money to go through and remake components to reduce car weight without reducing safety or reliability.” In 1988, for example, prior to the British GP, he admitted that a revised sidepod design for the MP4/4 accounted for between £200,000 and £300,000. In F1 today, development costs big numbers. “For me it was a phenomenal achievement to go from not what was a heavy car — it was too heavy but it wasn’t considered ridiculously heavy; there are a lot of cars currently running in Formula One that are heavier — to one that was optimised, and we have now optimised it very well, along with Honda who took weight out of the engine.” Pit lane gossip has it that the RA121E had been one of F1’s heavier power units.
As Renault chases higher revs and more power to match Honda’s recent steps, McLaren’s search for further improvement now centres on the aerodynamics, one of the strongest factors in the Williams package. Again, Ron is candid.
“We are going in the right direction; the car is getting lighter. The aerodynamic improvements made through the year have helped, but unfortunately you rarely get something for nothing. As we have increased the aerodynamic efficiency of the car, it has become more sensitive. Therefore the sensitivity of the car is the area we are addressing, to make it a little more forgiving when it’s out of its optimum set-up. And of course, unless you have an efficient active ride system, during the course of a Grand Prix the car will go through various changes of dynamic characteristics as the fuel load drops out of it and the tyres deteriorate. Our car is a touch sensitive in the configuration it’s in at the moment, a little more difficult to drive. Of course, it’s capable of winning races, and that’s the first objective, and now we’ve just got to try and optimise that and get a bit more performance advantage.”
At Magny Cours, wrongly as it transpired, his manner suggested that a heavily revised car was on the way, prompting the question whether McLaren ever considered modifying the MP4/6 in the manner in which Ferrari apparently revamped the 642 into the 643. Dennis, however, disagrees that the latter was as speedy and dramatic a reaction as it seemed.
“I think that was 99 per cent implemented as a result of Migeot joining the team after the 642 had been started, and convincing everybody that the 643 could happen. I do not think, and this is my opinion, that the 643 was inspired out of the uncompetitiveness of the 642. That car took a long time to draw and manufacture. The 642’s performance might have accelerated it, but it was not conceived out of that. It was conceived before things reached that state. Changes like that take time.
“In that sort of situation it’s important at all levels that you have to be sure that the changes are for the better. Therefore you’ve got to understand what is right and understand what is wrong. When something clearly is not performing the way it should, you’ve got to change it when you have the knowledge that permits you to change it for the better. We still, honestly — and maybe other teams will laugh at this — we still don’t fully understand to our complete satisfaction how to optimise a high nose configuration. I don’t think many people would admit to it, but the majority of teams whose cars have it, don’t know why.”
Thus, as the 1991 World Championship hinges on the final four-race shoot-out, the McLaren retains its conventional appearance, but appearances themselves can be deceptive. “You know, an interesting point is that both of our cars sustained quite significant underbody damage at Monza because we set them too low before the start of the race. That would dramatically have reduced their performance, so our results in Italy were not reflective of our level of competitiveness.
“The Hungarian Grand Prix was a well executed strategy. We focussed on qualifying. We then optirnised the car, within its performance limitations, to that type of circuit. Made sure we got on to the straight well and weren’t too worried about its performance on the back of the circuit where overtaking isn’t possible. And that won us the race. In Spa we were closer again, and again focussed on qualifying. We were pretty much there. At Monza we were almost equal, if not actually equal. All being equal, and even with the new Renault coming, from Portugal I hope we will be competitive and able to win even in a straight fight.”
On the World Championship trail it is axiomatic that the last year is always tougher than those which preceded it, but even allowing for that Dennis has no doubt the 1991 struggle for the title has been McLaren’s hardest. “It’s certainly been the most difficult. We’ve had to work hard, of course, and we haven’t won the Championship yet. If we are to win it, it will probably carry a bit more satisfaction that some of the others. But the biggest gain that will come, whether we win or we lose, will come out of what we learned in the process of becoming competitive after slumping into uncompetitiveness. It’s a lesson that we’ve learned well, and we’ll be much better for it in 1992.” — DJT