The F1 production line
There are two production lines within the McLaren campus in leafy (and, currently, somewhat waterlogged) Woking, Surrey.
One belongs to McLaren Automotive Ltd, and, while it’s doubtless cleaner and quieter than most roadcar production lines you’re likely to see, it will nonetheless produce around 1400 cars this year – with an exotic mixture of 12C and 650S models, as well as the McLaren P1™.
The other, by contrast, belongs to McLaren Racing Ltd, and will churn out a grand total of four cars this year.
That’s right, four.
That might sound quite paltry for a sport that’s rightly considered the pinnacle of automotive engineering, but, in fact, it’s a reflection of the lean, efficient way in which modern F1 operates. It’s also evidence that simply throwing resource at a problem isn’t always better than carefully applying a little clever thinking.
Of course, things used to be different: back in the days when testing was only limited by your imagination, a Formula 1 team could – and would – build a small army of cars.
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Back then, it was a practical necessity: after all, if you were running three distinct teams – one race team, and two operationally independent teams – you needed the chassis to back them up. By the early 2000s, it wasn’t unusual for a top outfit to have a test team stationed down at Barcelona testing tyres, and another at Paul Ricard trying the Monaco aero package – all while the race team’s trucks trundled back from a weekend in Imola.
In short, you needed a lot of cars.
In those days, it wasn’t unusual for a team to knock out eight or nine tubs per year. At its most prodigious, McLaren built an incredible 11 MP4-6 chassis in 1991. Of those, four were later re-designated as B-spec cars that raced in the early races of ’92, before the de facto MP4-7 was readied for its debut at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the third race of the season.
Such profligate production came to a halt in 2009, when all teams voted to abandon in-season testing, instead jointly agreeing to a series of tests before the season kicked off. It was a practice that continued until the end of 2013, when a limited number of in-season tests were introduced for this year – they take place after the grands prix in Bahrain, Spain, Great Britain and Abu Dhabi.
So, in 2008, the year that Lewis Hamilton won the world championship for McLaren, and a season when one-car test teams still regularly operated between grands prix, we built six MP4-23s, and put them all to good use. The following year, we trimmed the number of cars to five; by 2010, it was down to four, and it’s been that way ever since.
Nowadays, efficient chassis management is an art in itself. Without the need for a fleet of chassis, it’s a tricky job to manage the build, paint, transportation, re-build and racing of just four cars.
While you could lay claim to the notion that the MP4-29 is built on a ‘production line’, it’s a little more complex than that – the cars are rarely used in sequential order. Chassis #01 has so far done the majority of 2014’s legwork; it was the car placed under the spotlight at the car launch on January 24, and it’s the chassis that did the Jerez test in early February. It’s since been returned to MTC, re-built, modded and painted and freighted to Bahrain, where it was the spare at last week’s test, and will be pressed into service again later this week.
Chassis #03 was the running car for the first Bahrain test, and will also undertake testing duties this week – it then hurries back to MTC, gets dressed (ie: it gets a new paintjob) and is rushed out to Melbourne, where it’s the last of three cars to arrive for the Australian Grand Prix. As such, it’s the car that will sit in the back of the garage in stripped-down tub-form – only being pressed into service if we damage one of the two fully built-up race cars.
Chassis #01, the star of Jerez, also goes back to MTC for a wash and a scrub, but it and its sibling, chassis #04, fly to Melbourne five days earlier than the spare chassis, becoming the two race cars that are currently slated to contest Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain and China.
Chassis #02? It’s not due to take to the track until the post-Bahrain Grand Prix test in early April.
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Of course, the best-laid plans are always subject to change – and invariably do if a chassis becomes damaged or needs repair. Last year, the mechanics replaced Sergio Perez’s tub on Friday night after the Mexican dropped the car at Spoon during free practice at the Japanese Grand Prix. While the tub wasn’t irreparably damaged, a detailed analysis quickly showed it was quicker and easier to build up the spare tub than to carry out sub-optimal in-the-field repairs.
It takes a mountain of paperwork just to cover the logistics of the tubs – imagine the further complexity of managing all the bodywork, the list of new components – most of which invariably get flown out to the tests and races at the last minute, front and rear wings, and the thousands of little spares, screws, spacers, fixings and tools that accompany the cars around the world.
So, when you turn on your TV and settle down to watch free practice at Albert Park, just remember that it’s taken months of work just to put those cars on the track. Nothing in F1 is easy…