A return to “normality” in Formula One next season – “to be on the podium and fight for victories” – is Fernando Alonso’s expectation for McLaren after the team formally announced their partnership with Honda would end this year. The relationship has proved to be a very public car crash for the team and the engine manufacturer over the last three years and Alonso has been absolutely clear that he held Honda responsible. His optimism stems from the switch to Renault power units but the task that lies ahead for McLaren remains immense.
The most successful British racing team, with eight constructors’ and 12 driver’s titles, have not won a race since Jenson Button’s victory at Brazil in 2012. They have not claimed a constructors’ title since 1998. The switch to Renault is not going to reverse this trend overnight but it may be enough to lay the foundations for the future.
The partnership with Honda, engineered by Ron Dennis, had at its heart the belief that the team could not challenge for the title with a customer engine and needed a works partnership. A sound theory, but in recent years Toyota, BMW and Honda themselves have discovered that being a works outfit guarantees nothing in F1. McLaren’s hopes for a return to the glory days of their partnership in the late 1980s and early 90s turned to bitter ashes. Their engine has been underpowered and unreliable throughout.
McLaren end ill-fated partnership with engine manufacturer Honda
On Wednesday the team’s racing director, Éric Boullier, was blunt about the failed partnership. “When you look at the last three years it’s been a proper disaster for us in terms of credibility and getting new sponsors,” he said.
Boullier, however, shared Alonso’s optimism. “You have to take the long-term view,” he added. “In the next five years I am absolutely sure that we will go back to where McLaren belongs. And with this bouncing back we get our credibility back and it will rebuild our sponsor portfolio. It might take two to three years.”
He, at least, has put a reasonable timescale on it, as opposed to Honda, who said in Singapore they expected their new partnership with Toro Rosso would put them into the top three, a singularly spectacular failure in managing expectations.
McLaren’s executive director, Zak Brown, who took over at the end of last year, told me early in the season he should be judged by the team’s results. By ditching Honda he has made the first step to improving them but the difficult job lies ahead.
The team will take a huge hit commercially from dropping Honda – understood to be around $100m (£74m) a year, a blow exacerbated by a lack of sponsors and poor finishes resulting in a drop in prize money. But nonetheless financially they do not have to worry in the short-term. Brown has been explicit that the team’s Bahraini owners are unafraid of backing them and have the financial muscle to do so.
Equally at the factory in Woking they have the resources, numbers and experience to put that backing to good use. This would, it is hoped, kickstart the cycle of recovery. Better results mean more prize money and more sponsors. “We are ninth in the championship,” said Boullier. “With a top engine I think we would be fourth right now and just on the FOM [prize] money we could cover the engine side, so it will not be a big risk on the monetary side. Thanks to the shareholders who have been brave enough to take a sporting choice and not hurt McLaren.”
The Renault engine is the third best on the grid this season – they are bringing a new concept to the 2018 iteration but it will have to go some to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari. The power unit switch alone will not put McLaren on the front of the grid. In their favour, however, their chassis does appear strong and with some decent horses they can at least target challenging Red Bull, subject to having to alter their car to the architecture of the Renault engine.
All of which does promise improvement; even if the race wins Alonso desires may be some way off, Boullier’s five-year prediction is instructive. The switch to Renault was desperately needed by the team but it is not necessarily the solution. Brown has spoken about looking forward to the new engine regulations of 2021, for which Porsche, Aston Martin, Cosworth and indeed McLaren themselves are considering manufacturing power units. Rebuilding for now and coming back to the top when the playing field has been levelled with a less engine-dependent formula, is an entirely realistic proposition and one to be welcomed.
F1 needs a strong McLaren, at the heart of which is Alonso, who will visit the factory this week where it is expected he will finalise a new deal with the team. Alonso is the final key to McLaren’s rejuvenation. The double world champion is one of the few drivers able to extract more from his machinery than it promises on paper – he can bring the forward momentum they so badly need. With the driver market opening up at the end of 2018, Alonso may want only a one-year contract but McLaren need to show him they are a proposition worth sticking with. Now they have a proven engine there is nowhere to hide. If they are to return to the top, next season must prove to be the start of a new era for the team.
In simple terms, F1 aerodynamicists have two primary concerns: the creation of downforce, to help push the car's tyres onto the track and improve cornering forces; and the minimisation of drag, a product of air resistance which acts to slow the car down.
Although always important in race car design, aerodynamics became a truly serious proposition in the late 1960s when several teams started to experiment with the now familiar wings. Race car wings - or aerofoils as they are sometimes known - operate on exactly the same principle as aircraft wings, only in reverse. Air flows at different speeds over the two sides of the wing (by having to travel different distances over its contours) and this creates a difference in pressure, a physical rule known as Bernoulli's Principle. As this pressure tries to balance, the wing tries to move in the direction of the low pressure. Planes use their wings to create lift, race cars use theirs to create negative lift, better known as downforce. A modern Formula 1 car is capable of developing 3.5 g lateral cornering force (three and a half times its own weight) thanks to aerodynamic downforce. That means that, theoretically, at high speeds they could drive upside down.
Early experiments with movable wings and high mountings led to some spectacular accidents, and for the 1970 season regulations were introduced to limit the size and location of wings. Evolved over time, those rules still hold largely true today.
By the mid-1970s 'ground effect' downforce had been discovered. Lotus engineers found out that by cleverly designing the underside of the car, the entire chassis could be made to act like one giant wing which sucked the car to the road. The ultimate example of this thinking was the Brabham BT46B, designed by Gordon Murray, which actually used a cooling fan to extract air from a sealed area under the car, creating enormous downforce. After technical challenges from other teams it was withdrawn after a single race. Soon after rule changes followed to limit the benefits of 'ground effects' - firstly a ban on the skirts used to contain the low pressure area, then later a requirement for a 'stepped floor'.
In the years that have followed aerodynamic development has been more linear, though ever increasing speeds and various other factors have led the sport’s regulators to tweak and tighten the regulations on several occasions.
As a result, today’s aerodynamicists have considerably less freedom than their counterparts from the past, with strict rules dictating the height, width and location of bodywork. However, with every additional kilogram of downforce equating to several milliseconds of lap time saved, the teams still invest considerable amounts of time and money into wind tunnel programmes and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) – the two main forms of aerodynamic research.
The most obvious aerodynamic devices on a Formula 1 car are the front and rear wings, which together account for around 60 percent of overall downforce (with the floor responsible for the majority of the rest). These wings are fitted with different profiles depending on the downforce requirements of a particular track. Tight, slow circuits like Monaco require very aggressive wing profiles to maximise downforce, whilst at high-speed circuits like Monza the amount of wing is minimised to reduce drag and increase speed on the long straights.
Every single surface of a modern Formula 1 car, from the shape of the suspension links to that of the driver's helmet, has its aerodynamic effects considered. This is because disrupted air, where the flow 'separates' from the body, creates turbulence which in turn creates drag and slows the car down. In fact, if you look closely at a modern car you will see that almost as much effort has been spent reducing drag and managing airflow as increasing downforce - from the vertical endplates fitted to wings to prevent vortices forming, to the diffuser mounted low at the rear, which helps to re-equalise pressure of the faster-flowing air that has passed under the car and would otherwise create a low-pressure 'balloon' dragging at the back. But despite this, designers can't make their cars too 'slippery', as a good supply of airflow has to be ensured to help cool the various parts of the power unit.
The ingenuity of F1 engineers means that every now and then a loophole will be found in the regulations and a clever aerodynamic solution will be introduced. More often than not these devices, such as double diffusers, F-ducts and exhaust-blown diffusers, will be swiftly banned, but one innovation that has been actively endorsed is the DRS (Drag Reduction System) rear wing. This device, which was introduced to encourage more overtaking, allows drivers to adjust the angle of the main plane of the rear wing to reduce drag and increase straight-line speed, though it may only be used on specific parts of the track and when a driver is within one second of the car ahead in a race.
Front wings typically have multiple elements and highly complex designs to manage airflow
The diffuser at the rear of the car plays a crucial aerodynamic role
Renault Sport F1 Team RS17 rear wing detail at Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Practice, Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, Friday 25 August 2017. © Sutton Images
McLaren MCL32 rear wing detail at Formula One World Championship, Rd17, United States Grand Prix, Practice, Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, USA, Friday 20 October 2017. © Mark Sutton/Sutton Images