Kevin Magnussen was deeply impressive in his first extensive test as a pukka McLaren driver, and not just because his best lap was significantly faster than anyone else managed. That may or may not have been significant, given that none of the cars were yet at anything like their potential.
We now hear, for example, that the Renault-engined cars were not running at more than 50 per cent of the maximum of the electronic energy recovery systems – meaning even when they were running, they were minus around 100hp to the Mercedes and Ferrari units. We also don’t know if McLaren – or anyone else – was running in a trim that would meet the fuel flow limit of 100kg per hour. We don’t know the respective fuel loads, the tyre use comparison etc, etc.
But putting all that aside, McLaren was still hugely enthused about its new rookie signing. What seasoned track bystanders and data analysts alike were picking out was the beautifully composed way he correlates throttle with cornering grip. Even while leaving very little tyre performance on the table, he was not overstepping the limits, but nuzzling gently up to them – consistently – and the throttle foot was playing a crucial role in that.
It’s a skill that’s going to be extra valuable in F1 cars that suddenly have an excess of torque through big chunks of the lap after years of high-revving V8s that were relatively gutless out of their narrow power band and which could therefore allow their drivers to be foot to the floor very early in the turn.
Those who have worked with Magnussen say this is fairly typical of his thoughtful approach. In comparison to his former World Series team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne (also a McLaren junior driver) Magnussen’s car control is not called upon so frequently (Vandoorne is possessed of truly spectacular car control, incidentally).
With Magnussen it is expressed in a different way, using his sensitivity to feel for the limit rather than reacting after he’s gone over it. This micro-analysis of driver inputs is going to figure increasingly more in engineers’ analysis as the science becomes more organic.
There is a major new piece of technology coming which will allow a much fuller and less robotic understanding of what the driver is doing. I’m sworn to secrecy on it, but should be able to tell Motor Sport readers all about it later this year. Trust me, it’s mind blowing.
Telemetry in the past
Ever since data logging and telemetry came along, the data has tended to determine the driver input. The engineer, having analysed the data, will tell the driver what he needs to be doing and the driver will try to adapt accordingly. But actually that is the tail wagging the dog.
Often what is really happening is that the car is not allowing the driver to do what he really wants, or that the driver is masking a problem with the car by adapting. The more switched on can make that distinction and might respond to their engineer saying, “Well the understeer doesn’t look too bad on the data at that point,” with, “Trust me. I could make the data look an awful lot worse if I drove it the way I want to drive it there.” But even at F1 level many can’t make that distinction.
While we’re on the verge of that breakthrough in technology, it’s amusing to relate data analysis back to earlier times. Kevin’s father Jan Magnussen was very gifted but widely reckoned to be lacking in application. One of his engineers told me a story once about how after being out-qualified by his team-mate, the engineer suggested he go study the team-mate’s telemetry to see where the extra time was.
“It was like getting a teenager to do his homework,” laughed the engineer. “All sulky, ‘why do I have to?’ sort of thing. Anyway, he went next door with the data on a floppy disc [that dates it] and I can hear him on the keyboard looking at it for about five minutes. Then I can hear from the pattern of the keyboard that he’s not looking at data anymore. He was back to playing his favourite game on there – solitaire, I think it was.”
That was the mid-‘90s. Go back further and things get more basic again. There was no on-board data. Gary Anderson’s last job at McLaren was at the 1979 Paul Ricard test where the team was trying out rookies Alain Prost and Kevin Cogan to see who might line up alongside John Watson for 1980.
“Alain got in the car and didn’t really seem anything special in the first few laps,” recalls Gary. “It was the first time he’d driven anything more powerful than an F3 car. We brought him in, kicked the tyres a bit and sent him out again. Then did six laps, each of which was faster by big chunks and by the sixth lap he’d gone faster than Watty ever had there. That was lunchtime.
“Kevin Cogan got in the car for the afternoon, stalled it in the pits, then went out – nothing special, didn’t really seem to be happening. He came in complaining of terrible vibration in the car and we couldn’t find anything amiss and just told him to get on with it.
“Later on we found out that he’d been on flat-spotted tyres the whole time. On Alain’s final in-lap he’d flat-spotted them, told us he’d just been seeing how late he could brake somewhere.” But Alain had the drive by the time he fessed up to that…