How to build a Formula 1 car | Part 2
So, Formula 1 has (finally!) thrown off the winter blankets and broken cover.
A flurry of launches, a series of interviews – some candid, others less so – and an initial four-day burst of testing have given fans and teams plenty of tidbits to feast upon. Yet it’s still difficult to piece together the apparent competitive order ahead of this month’s Australian Grand Prix.
For the engineers and technicians back at the McLaren Technology Centre, the gossip and chit-chat is somewhat superficial: the winter months offer up an intense manufacturing challenge, and the deadline to freight parts to Melbourne is both unforgiving and unmoveable.
For McLaren operations director Simon Roberts, the busy pre-Christmas scramble for parts is followed by an equally intensive rush to assemble, build and prove-out a series of chassis ahead of the first race.
“The build and assembly programme really ramps up over the winter,” he says. “By early January, we’ve more than doubled the amount of work that’s in the system. That isn’t a steep climb; rather, it’s increased week on week at a steady rate – and it’ll stay like that for seven or eight weeks. Basically, until we get the cars to Australia.”
As the supply chain recovers after the Christmas break, thousands of components converge to form the new car.
Or, rather, three cars.
While we’ll undertake the Barcelona pre-season tests with just a single chassis, we naturally need a car each for Jenson and Fernando, and a spare tub to be on-hand in the garage in case we need to replace a damaged car during the race weekend.
And it’s that necessity to cope with three separate but interweaved build programmes that can cause logistical headaches.
“What we try to do is build the first two chassis at once,” says Roberts. “So chassis one and chassis two are built within a week of each other. Building two chassis at the exact same time is incredibly difficult: as soon as you hit a snag, production on both stops, so we run with a two-week stagger between cars.
“That way, you crunch all the problems with the first chassis, which makes chassis two a smoother and easier process. After that, we’ll have the third chassis waiting in the wings to begin production – and that should be even easier.
“Getting that first chassis out of the mould is a real triumph for the whole organisation. Once it’s been through machining, and passed the FIA tests, there’s a huge collective sigh of relief.
Happily, MP4-31 passed all its mandatory crash tests, which meant the build programme could continue unabated. Still, there are logistical hurdles to clear during those busy months of production.
Roberts explains: “After the first two chassis, even if we’d have wanted to get a headstart on chassis four, we couldn’t because we want to use that capacity on bodywork, wings and suspension for the car.”
Last year, the team took the decision to defer the build of its fourth car. Chassis #04 became a prototype lightweight chassis that required the full suite of FIA homologation tests. This allowed the team to test some heavier test items during the second half of the season without having to run the car overweight.
Will the team adopt the same strategy this year?
“It depends on what we want to do,” admits Roberts. “It’s a risk versus performance decision – we’re not sure if there’s enough of an advantage now to justify delaying the build of the fourth chassis this year, so it’s still open to discussion.”
Once the first chassis has been produced, it’s machined ready for mandatory crash-testing. Each team’s car must undergo a series of stringent tests to ensure it’s safe and strong enough to compete in both the races and the pre-season tests.
The initial focus is at the back of the car – the rear crash structure, a carbon-fibre box that attaches to the gearbox, must pass a homologation crash test. Additional crash tests are required on the chassis on its own, and the chassis with nosebox fitted. The rollhoop and the chassis also have a (non-destructive) squeeze test.
Cars no longer need to pass a side-impact test as the safety structures are a homologated component – the same for every team.
Still the throughput of parts during our most intense periods is colossal:
“It takes about a month to make the cars’ top bodies and sidepods,” says Roberts. “That’s pretty quick – the work’s already pre-loaded in the system, so we know where the things will be made and what the split will be between in-house and outsource for patterns, moulds and parts.
“There’s so much work that we can’t do it all, so we’ll split the workload – whoever can help us do it fastest – it’s very dynamic. In January and February, we’re running about 6,000 works orders simultaneously in the system. Internally, we’re manufacturing over 1,200 per week –there’s a huge amount of traffic within the system.
“Generally, if you look ahead six weeks, there’s almost nothing in the pipeline – everything is delivered within a four to six-week window.”
With less than a week until that flight to Melbourne, the manufacturing schedule cannot be more important...