MARCH 9, 1998
McLaren's little secret...
There is no doubt that McLaren is running something which has given the team a massive advantage and while a good engine, good tires, a good chassis and good drivers might seem to create a strong package, many people in the F1 paddock believe that the team has managed to find an important technical breakthrough.
During qualifying in Australia there was much speculation about the team's mysterious extra brake pedal which was first revealed at the end of last season which apparently allows the driver to switch braking from side to side on the car depending on the corner. This has the effect of making the car turn more quickly as the inside wheels are slowed but those on the outside of the corner continue as normal. The FIA has ruled that this system is not illegal.
"We have had our car checked all the time during the development," said team boss Ron Dennis. "There is nothing wrong at all. In fact, several other teams have something similar for their cars."
We believe that one of the teams is Ferrari and it was, therefore, very interesting that the Italian team was one of six which complained to the FIA in a letter which questioned the legality of the McLaren. The implication in this is that the teams are not worried about the braking system itself but by some other aspect of the McLaren.
As no-one seems to know exactly what it is that has made the McLarens so competitive there have been a number of attempts by rival teams to discover how the McLaren braking system is working. On Saturday in Melbourne Ron Dennis accused a rival team of espionage after a photographer was found in the McLaren garage, taking pictures. "We evicted him from our garage," Dennis said, "and on further interrogation he admitted to being the brother-in-law of another leading team's aerodynamicist.
"There are some teams, one in particular, which does not seem to have any code of conduct," Dennis added. "So you have to take a more aggressive stance against their behavior. We have to protect our intellectual property rights, but I do not think this is a sport where you reach for the law book at every opportunity. I would rather not do that."
There was much speculation in the paddock as to what it was that the spy was trying to photograph with one popular theory being that McLaren is using a system of generating power with the brakes which is then used to drive small electric motors which run the auxiliary pumps on the Mercedes-Benz engine. Normally the oil and water pumps are run by chaindrive or gears from the engine and normally this consumes around 30 horsepower.
The amount of power which can be generated by the car would not, however, be sufficient to run the pumps for an entire race and so the rumors suggest that McLaren has developed a system in which the pumps are run by the engine at certain points on the circuit and by the electric pumps at other times which means that on some parts of the circuit the drivers can switch on an extra 30 horsepower whenever they need to overtake.
Several teams argue that such a system would be illegal although there is no obvious regulation which bans power regeneration. Article 1.3 of the F1 Technical Regulations defines a car as being "a locomotive device". The teams argue that "a locomotive device" is a singular machine and that by adding a small electric motor a car is not legal as it has two locomotive devices. According to some engineers the concept of power regeneration was discussed at a meeting of the FIAÊTechnical Working Group and it was agreed that it would not be allowed but there is no actual regulation which bans it. It should perhaps be remembered that because of the ongoing dispute about the Concorde Agreement McLaren does not actually have a voice on the Technical Working Group and so, in theory, is not bound by any agreements made by that body.
We understand that teams are working flat out to devise similar systems but it will be some months before they are ready to be fitted to the cars and in the time it takes the other teams to catch up McLaren will be able to build a lead in the WorldÊChampionship. "We have seen this sort of thing before," commented Frank Williams after the race in Australia. "I think they'll only be this strong for the first half of the season."