Formula for success

5 min read

It has been a mixed bag for McLaren’s F1 team so far this season. Now languishing in third place in the Constructors Championships behind Ferrari and Renault and still without a win, the team knows it has some way to go before it can overhaul its rivals in the rankings. At its headquarters, the McLaren Technology Centre — a Sir Norman Foster-designed gleaming curve of glass and steel outside Woking — the man charged with turning around the team’s racing fortunes is Jonathan Neale, McLaren Racing’s managing director.

Neale’s varied career began at Phillips Defence Systems where he focused on semiconductor design, software and electronic warfare systems for submarines and ships. In 2001 he joined McLaren from BAE Systems where he had been the managing director of the Hawk Fast Jet Programme.

The move from the defence industry to Formula One was a huge change in both working environment and pressures.

‘F1 is a fiercely competitive environment which you have to enjoy. It is a fast-moving business and it is this pace that makes it so different,’ he said.

Neale believes the key to success in F1, from the minutiae of McLaren’s extensive R&D programme to the fractions of seconds that make the difference between winning and losing, is in the detail. He estimates that on average an engineering change is made every 20 minutes to McLaren’s race car during the Formula One season.

The result of this engineering perpetual motion is that the team can shave off about 2.5 seconds per lap between the first and last race of the season, an important figure when the difference between winning and losing a Grand Prix could be a fraction of a second saved during a qualifying lap.

The driver’s own important role notwithstanding, there are four distinct areas that make up a Grand Prix-winning ‘package’, according to Neale. The first is the chassis, which must be structurally stiff with excellent aerodynamics. Second, there is the engine. ‘The engine is an area of key differentiation. Everyone tries to squeeze the most out of the engines with some teams, including us, revving up to 20,000rpm and getting quite extraordinary levels of power compared to roadcar standards,’ said Neale.

Next is the tyres, with driving on the ‘right rubber’ absolutely crucial if teams expect to make the difference on the race day. The two big guns, Michelin and Bridgestone, are engaged in a ‘tyre war’ to get their products into F1 cars while this season it is estimated that tyre development will make up about two-thirds of all test mileage that McLaren runs as it tests compounds and structure.

The final element is the team’s race strategy. While at first this might appear to be the least technical aspect of pre-race preparations, it is a part of McLaren’s F1 operation that draws on a wide variety of leading-edge technologies ranging from the latest sensors to telematics. Neale’s team employs a number of maths graduates at the McLaren Technology Centre who use supercomputers to run game theory scenarios — a form of applied mathematics — to help develop racing strategy. ‘Any Achilles heel in any one of these factors and you will not win the championship,’ said Neale.

However, these extremely bright mathematicians — the cream of the crop plucked from universities throughout the country — are only as good as the information with which they can work.

‘The days of the team principal looking over the pit wall and sticking his arm out to see if it’s raining are long gone,’ said Neale. ‘It’s a bit like modern warfare, where your command and control is in one place but there is so much going on that’s distributed across the globe that you need to manage the data coming off both your car and your competitors’ cars.’

The ability to respond immediately to any change during a race is essential, considering the small margins at stake, and vast amounts of information are generated during every test and race. Every possible variable is taken into account including details such as that during qualifying rounds, available lap times may change by up to a minute and a half because of the amount of rubber that has been laid down on the track from tyres.

McLaren’s F1 team run a layered decision-making system that begins with the car itself. This year’s model, the MP4-21, is equipped with hundreds of sensors that constantly stream data using the wireless telemetry system located trackside. Here in the garage, technicians can look at the car’s vital signs, such as engine performance and chassis in realtime. Salient data is then wired into the race-trucks where the race engineers and aerodynamicists also analyse it before sending it, along with competitors’ data, via several ISDN lines back to mission control at Woking. Here, at the hub of the F1 operation, engine and chassis specialists, design engineers and race strategists analyse the data and are often aware of problems before the driver and the pit manager.

‘Simulations are fed into computers to change the strategy depending on the data,’ said Neale. ‘We can then make a decision that will alter the race, recommend a strategy and advise the pitwall immediately, even if they are on the other side of the world.’

In a sport where the smallest details separate first from last, and teams strive to get fractionally more out of their vehicle, legislation is a powerful test of a team’s engineering prowess. Alongside McLaren’s own innovations the sport’s governing body, the FIA, introduced new regulations for the current season. These included changing the shape of the car’s bodywork by raising the front aerodynamic surfaces — and so altering the car’s handling — and changing the engine from a V10 to a V8. All of these changes mean that from one year to the next, no F1 car is ever exactly the same.

‘A Formula One car has around 11,500 parts and we redesign the entire thing from one year to the next with the carryover being less than five per cent,’ said Neale. ‘From 2005 to 2006, 20 per cent of this was driven by legislation, 80 per cent by innovation.’

‘We had programs running in aerodynamics, materials to reduce weight and lower the centre of gravity of the car, vehicle dynamic programs looking at suspension and kinematics on the car and engine development programs. Our engine development work meant we had to change hydraulics, cooling systems, electronic control and even the gearbox. You name it, it was changed.’

One of Neale’s key roles at McLaren is to maintain a business culture that allows aggressive innovation but this also requires slick execution. ‘You can have all the smart ideas but if you can’t deploy that quickly you lose out. We’ve got some of the brightest engineers, graduates and scientists that we can find in a hothouse of innovation but at the sharp end a pit-stop is only around six seconds long so there’s no room for negotiation.’

Innovation in F1 technology also has knock-on effects in other divisions of the McLaren brand, particularly McLaren Automotive, the division that primarily works on the Mercedes SLR McLaren, its latest super-car (see Insight).

According to Neale not only is F1 technology such as brake packages, engine cooling and aerodynamics finding its way into sports cars but McLaren Racing is also benefiting from innovation developed by its consumer arm. Safety disciplines such as crash test modelling and finite element analysis, which allow engineers to model how a car deforms in a crash, have been taken from McLaren Automotive and re-applied to the high-risk world of Formula One.

Neale remains hopeful for his team’s fortunes over the rest of the season and one day hopes to emulate last year’s triumphant Brazilian Grand Prix when McLaren drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen took first and second place. Despite the intense pressures that come with being involved in F1, Neale loves his job.

‘There are worse things for an engineer to do than to get out of bed every morning and come and design racing cars — it’s absolutely fantastic.’