Why 2011’s regulations could save McLaren

January 16, 2011

Formula 1’s regulation changes in 2011 could be a blessing for McLaren – and not for the reasons you might think.

When changes in the regulations are announced, it inevitably leads to discussions about which teams will benefit. Logic states that the ban on the double-deck diffuser will favour Red Bull, whose RB5 was easily the fastest of 2009’s single-deck diffuser cars; while the reintroduction of KERS should favour McLaren, whose system was the best of the teams that chose to run it two years ago, and have a year’s head start relative to those who didn’t.

If 2009 showed anything, however, it was that a good KERS unit was no substitute for a competitive aerodynamic passage. Downforce is king in modern Formula 1, and it’s unlikely the marginal differences between KERS units will decide which car takes the title in 2011.

While McLaren’s MP4-25 rarely set the pace in 2010, it nevertheless had an aggressive aerodynamic package. After its introduction in 2009, the double-deck diffuser quickly became the single largest generator of downforce on an F1 car. McLaren expoited this more than any other team, focussing its design philosophy on maximising the effect of the diffuser.

Even a layman could see that the MP4-25 was a long car relative to its opposition – a conscious design choice by McLaren to maximise the area of the floor capable of generating downforce. The diffuser itself was huge, its design intricate, fed by gaping holes in the floor made possible through loopholes in the regulations. It was a very different approach to eventual champions Red Bull, and made it one of the most radical cars on the grid.

Eliot wrote “in my beginning is my end”; and so in the first seeds of the MP4-25’s design philosophy laid the shortcomings that would be its downfall. By focussing more on underfloor downforce than their rivals, McLaren also created a car that was far more sensitive to pitch. In order to keep it within its narrow operating window, the car had to be run with incredibly stiff suspension. The result was a car that jumped at the first sight of a bump, as shown by the team’s lacklustre performance over the uneven surface at the season opener in Bahrain. The MP4-25’s ability to generate underbody downforce may have been its greatest strength, but this inadvertently created its most crippling weaknesses.

From 2011, the double-deck diffuser is banned, meaning the relative importance of the floor to cars’ aerodynamic performance will reduce. Inevitably, this will lead to a shift in focus towards upper bodies and wings to generate the majority of a car’s downforce. Strange as it may sound, this may be a blessing in disguise for the team from Woking; by forcing them to shift focus away from the floor and towards the upper body, it’s almost impossible that the MP4-26 could have the same weaknesses as its predecessor.

By banning double-deck diffusers, the 2011 regulations could well save McLaren from itself.

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