Moving up and down, side to side, like a…
Yes, that’s right, a washing machine – not a rollercoaster. From putting your mind and body in one (do not try this at home) to getting Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris to open their box of secrets and why, even despite covid-19, the 2020 Formula 1 season wasn’t the toughest there’s been; McLaren F1 Technical Director James Key and Racing Director Andrea Stella have their say on a year like no other.
So, obvious place to start, but we can’t look back on the year without mentioning covid-19. Has it made this season the toughest you’ve experienced and how has the team dealt with the challenges of this unique year?
Andrea Stella: Covid-19 had a huge impact on the way we went racing. Working in tandem with Formula 1 and the FIA, we defined and implemented a range of mitigation policies and protocols to protect against the virus. We owe a great deal of thanks to Formula 1 and the FIA for their tireless efforts to put in place a framework that allowed us to race safely.
At McLaren, we set up a working group to develop guidelines to safeguard our people and regularly communicated with those at the track, at the McLaren Technology Centre and at home, to ensure everyone remained up to date with the latest measures in place. The protocols have been complex, and we have asked a lot from our people: they’ve had to socially distance but perform as one team. It’s testament to their efforts that, since we returned to racing, not a single member of the team at the track has contracted the virus.
Undoubtedly, upholding the health and continuity of the team has helped us in our fight for third in the Constructors’ Championship. We accelerated the introduction of comprehensive health and well-being support for our people, and when the results on track are good, as they have been this season, that helps too. Finally, we’re putting emphasis on developing and establishing a team culture that can underpin individual and team development, which ultimately makes going racing an even more rewarding experience.
Every F1 season is tough, but I wouldn’t say this one was the toughest. It certainly required resilience and adaptability. One element that makes a typical F1 season so tough is jet lag but we haven’t had to contend with that so much this year. Usually, at the start of a season, we go to Australia, come straight back to the UK and then go to China. Your body and mind become completely confused – it’s like you’ve put them in a washing machine and that gives you this permanent feeling of fatigue.
James Key: Andrea makes a really good point: every F1 season is tough. The sport has dealt with the unique challenges of this year very well. We were one of the first global sports to return to action. Formula 1, the FIA and all the teams came together to develop the protocols that have allowed us to race safely and complete a 17-race season.
For team members who travel to races I would say that it’s not been too different because they’ve still been together. But for those who don’t travel, we’ve had to introduce protocols and processes to protect against the virus that have resulted in a lot more hours spent apart and working from home.
Much of what we implemented at the McLaren Technology Centre was led by our production team because they need to be there to do their job. Being part of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, in the UK’s response to covid-19, actually gave us a head start when it came to returning to racing. We were more prepared because we’d already put in place many of the protocols needed for us to work safely and effectively.
Andrea, in addition to the mitigation of covid-19, throughout the campaign you’ve spoken of three key performance factors that would determine the midfield battle this season: performance, reliability and operations. How has the team performed in each of these areas?
AS: These three elements have always determined how well you perform in F1. You need to be very strong in each of them to be competitive. I think the fact that we ended this season at the front of the midfield shows that we have some solid basis in each of these areas. However, we are on a journey and the destination is still quite some miles away: we need to improve in a few aspects of performance, reliability and operations.
On the reliability side, the room for improvement is quantified by the points we lost this season. That’s largely been related to problems that were not necessarily in our control. We’ve done well from a chassis point of view, apart from qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix when Carlos was unable to set a time in Q2 due to a problem with the braking system.
When we look at operations, I think there are some aspects where we have made a step forward: logistics of parts, the way we build the car and some of our processes, like when managing faults. But there are some aspects where we’re still behind our competitors. Take pit-stops, for example, we’ve made progress throughout the season, but we need to make another step forward.
When it comes to car performance, in the first part of the season and in Monza, we were very competitive and at the front of the midfield, but we struggled to stay there in the second part of the season. James will be able to provide more detail, but the positive is we know the issues that limit our performance and now it’s up to us to work hard to resolve them. It’s in our hands.
JK: We definitely started strong and probably surprised some people because we didn’t really show our pace in winter testing. We introduced developments throughout the season, perhaps not quite as quickly as some teams, but we’ve taken time to learn about these developments and how they impact the car. Most have improved performance and remained on the car since their introduction.
Some parts we would have liked to have had longer to develop – they were slightly immature compared to what they would have been if we had introduced them next year. Take the new nose, for example. Mid-season there was a homologation deadline for the nose of the car which meant, because we didn’t want to stick with the concept we started 2020 with, we had to bring forward the 2021 concept to meet this deadline.
The midfield battle has been incredibly close this year. It’s ebbed and flowed depending on the circuit, tyres, weather conditions and, of course, car development. We’re talking about a tenth, or even half a tenth, of a second making the difference.
We’ve been able to identify the areas where our competitors are stronger than us and established the weaknesses of our car. Certain tracks and conditions, particularly in the latter part of the season, have not played to our strengths. I think there's enough scope within the regulations to address these weaknesses for 2021. Obviously, if you had a completely blank sheet of paper you could do even more, but the areas we need to improve aren’t related to the fundamental architecture of the car.
On the occasions when the car has not been as fast as those of our immediate competitors, we’ve often outperformed them. McLaren F1 Team Principal Andreas Seidl has said this is partly down to the drivers. What are your thoughts on how Carlos and Lando have performed this year?
AS: At the end of the day, it’s the drivers who are in the car. They are the ones that need to go out there and extract the performance from it to deliver the results. You can’t bring the points home if the drivers aren’t doing the job. Carlos and Lando have been excellent this year.
The level of collaboration between the two of them has been incredibly high. It’s one of the reasons they are so evenly matched on track. When there is an open and transparent dialogue between team-mates, it elevates their performance because they can crosscheck with each other and quickly identify the weak points of the car or find the best approach to a corner. This has been possible due to the personal qualities of Carlos and Lando, and, I hope, the environment we have built within the team which encourages openness and trust. It means the drivers feel comfortable opening their box of secrets, rather than keeping that box closed so as not to give away any advantage to their team-mate.
And when they open that box of secrets and you've got that kind of collaboration, surely that must result in very powerful feedback that can drive the development of the car?
JK: Definitely. It’s allowed us to pin down the real issues and weaknesses with the car. This is important because there’s always the risk of falling into a bit of a trap when you have drivers with differing opinions, or their opinions change quite drastically due to the particular challenges of a race weekend, such as track characteristics or tyre degradation. We’ve not fallen into that trap because Carlos and Lando, as well as our test and development drivers Oliver Turvey and Will Stevens, have been so consistent in their feedback and that’s a huge help when it comes to identifying our priorities for car development.
There's only so much you can do with simulation tools. Extracting the maximum performance from a car is subjective, it’s based on feeling and confidence behind the wheel and that’s only information you can get from a driver. As Andrea said, they are the ones in the car and that’s why their input is so valuable and useful.
What kind of input are you expecting from Daniel Ricciardo next year? James, you worked with him in 2012 and 2013 at Toro Rosso, what will he bring to the team?
JK: He’s an excellent driver to work with. He will have accumulated plenty of experience and knowledge since I last worked with him, so I expect he’ll be several steps ahead of where he was back then in terms of what he’ll bring to the team. He arrives as a proven race winner and is someone who can go toe to toe with the very best drivers. Daniel is very easy to get on with, but he’s hugely determined and that has a positive effect on any team. He will be a great reference point for us and, together with Lando, we will have one of the strongest driver pairings in the paddock.
AS: I think James has done a great job of underlining the calibre of driver Daniel is. He’s proven that he’s one of the best out there. The most important thing from my point of view is that we preserve the conditions that we created to allow that high level of collaboration between Carlos and Lando. But it’s not just about preserving those conditions, we may have to adapt them. Daniel is not Carlos and his relationship with Lando will be different. It may be similar, but it will not be the same and we need to be mindful of that and adapt with a view to maintain the standards. After two years of racing in F1 and having been so evenly matched with Carlos, Lando has shown that he has all the qualities to become a top driver in the sport. We head into 2021 with a very exciting and competitive driver line-up, that’s complemented by two excellent test and development drivers in Oliver and Will.
Coming back to the car, there is a lot of stability in the regulations for 2021. What are the key changes?
JK: As part of very sensible cost-saving measures for the sport in the wake of covid-19, next year’s cars will be closely based on their 2020 predecessors. But while there is stability in that sense, there are changes in the regulations for next year that require some unique developments beyond what we would have normally done. Rather than take a design, refine it, and explore concepts and ideas that could be compatible with the new car, we’ve had to substantially re-engineer some areas to adapt to regulation changes that are aimed at reducing the downforce of the cars. Every team is trying to recover as much of that downforce as it can, and this will continue into 2021 with aero development permitted next year.
The other big change heading into next year, which is unique to us, is the new power unit. We can’t just carry over the chassis from 2020. We’ve had to do a lot of redesigning, especially when it comes to various systems on the car, such as cooling and electronics. Not only will the chassis be different, the gearbox will be too and, of course, the engine, so the MCL35M is akin to a new car for us.
Having to spend 2021 development tokens on the Mercedes engine installation changed our approach when it came to developments this season. But the upshot of it is that we probably added a bit of performance in 2020 that we normally wouldn't have and there’s scope to develop these areas further based on all the information we’ve gathered.
And, looking even further ahead, what about 2022? James, you recently said that the regulation changes are bigger than any you have experienced in your career, how is our 2022 challenger shaping up?
JK: There’s a real blank sheet of paper approach to the ’22 car – the chassis regulations are fundamentally different, and the wheels and tyres are changing too. We’ve been working on it for some time now. Every team was expecting to race these cars in 2021, so I think everyone had got to a pretty advanced stage before the aero development freeze kicked in this year. That hasn’t stopped mechanical design or simulation work taking place though. Our gearbox design, for example, is very mature now.
The development freeze bought everyone a bit of thinking time. It allowed us to take a step back and really analyse the data and what we’ve done. We’ll be back in the wind tunnel immediately at the start of next year to continue work on the ’22 car – we’ve got plenty of developments to look at and lots of new concepts floating around too.
It’s still early days though, there’s plenty more to learn about what the true potential of a ’22 F1 car is and this learning process will continue for a while. It’s always a great challenge having significantly different technical regulations to work to. They represent a fresh start and provide new opportunities for design and development which, as engineers, is incredibly motivating. 2021 will be a busy year with a full season to complete, the MCL35M to develop and race, and new discoveries to make with our ’22 contender as it evolves – we can’t wait for it to start!
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