FEBRUARY 3, 1997

Technical analysis: McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12

THE West McLaren Mercedes Benz team had a "sneak preview" of its new 1997 car at its factory in Woking early on the morning of January 14.

THE West McLaren Mercedes Benz team had a "sneak preview" of its new 1997 car at its factory in Woking early on the morning of January 14. The prototype McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12 was unveiled in an orange and black livery - the color used on the old McLaren CanAm cars of the 1960s - but will be raced in a silver color-scheme this year. Silver is, of course, the traditional racing livery of Mercedes-Benz, but it is also the color used by the German West cigarette brand - the team's new title sponsor - for its West Lights packaging. The team wanted to get as much testing achieved as possible and so the McLaren sponsorship package will be revealed separately at a major launch in London's Alexandra Palace exhibition center on February 14. The team says it is expecting to have 4000 people present for the event.

Immediately after the technical launch the MP4-12 was loaded into a specially-chartered Iluyshin cargo plane and flown straight to Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain where David Coulthard was due to begin testing the following day. Unfortunately the Scotsman was only able to complete a couple of corners of the Jerez track before grinding to a halt with a fuel pump problem. This was fixed overnight and the following day the test team was able to get down to some serious work with MikaÊHakkinen - despite a second fuel pump problem.

The MP4-12 has been designed and built by the same group of engineers who have worked on all the recent McLarens although prior to design work beginning on the car McLaren carried out an internal analysis of its individual departments involved in the F1 project - which now employs around 275 people not including electronics engineers, TAG Electronics (which now supplies 40% of the F1 field) has another 110 staff, some of whom work with McLaren. The aim was to find ways in which to improve every part of the organization to ensure more efficiency in all aspects of design, production and engineering. This was followed by some restructuring.

The design work was carried out by a team of engineers headed by Neil Oatley, the team's chief designer. MatthewÊJeffreys was once again responsible for the design of the chassis (a position he has held since 1990). David North was project leader for the design of the transmission. David Neilson headed the suspension design team and former Cosworth engineer MarkÊIngham (who joined McLaren in 1995 from Peugeot Sport) was in charge of the engine installation.

The aerodynamic work was conducted by Henri Durand, the head of the company's aerodynamics, although project aerodynamicists on the MP4-12 were Phil Adey and Peter Prodromou. The team continues to use the British government-owned National Physical Laboratory windtunnel in Teddington, Middlesex - which McLaren engineers recently upgraded to 40% scale with a high-speed rolling road. The team does intend to build its own windtunnel - there may even be two windtunnels - when (and if) its gets planning permission for its new headquarters which it hopes to be allowed to build on a farm it bought 18 months ago at Fairoaks, to the north of Woking.

In addition to the various project groups, the design team enjoyed considerable input from McLaren's research & development department under former Williams engineer Paddy Lowe; the vehicle engineering department under Steve Nichols and the systems engineering department under German Dieter Gundel.

The design philosophy of the car was to analyze every single component with the aim of reducing weight and lowering the center of gravity of the car. In order to achieve this 90% of the parts had to be redesigned. The Mercedes-Benz FO110E, designed and built for the German car company by Ilmor Engineering of Brixworth, follows similar development lines. It retains the same basic architecture but features a new sand-cast aluminum alloy block and different internals components. It weighs in at 124kgs which is 4kgs heavier than last year's engine, but around the same as the Ferrari V10. It is the same length as the 1996 engine but is 24mm wider and 17mm lower. This means that the center of gravity been lowered. This has meant that the rear end aerodynamics have been substantially altered to take into account the new regulations for the rear impact zone and the reduced winglet area. The result is a newly-packaged longitudinal semi-automatic six-speed transmission and a rear suspension which features further use of composite parts. The result of all this work is a very neat and well thought-out rear with the weight very low indeed in the chassis.

The front end of the car has also been reworked considerably. The raised nose of the MP4/11 has been lowered to improve the airflow to the rear of the car and try to make up for some of the aerodynamic losses caused by the banning of rear winglets. The team continues to use advanced computational fluid dynamics software and has made major alterations to the internal air-flow of the car in an effort to improve the cooling efficiency.

The design team paid particular attention to creating a car which will be as "user-friendly" as possible for the McLaren race mechanics and in the Jerez testing the testing team was able to change one of the new V10s in just under an hour - despite having no real experience with the car. This will be a bonus for the team at races because practice time and the use of spare cars is severely restricted.

McLaren's production departments have long produced the highest quality parts in Grand Prix racing and, according to team boss Ron Dennis, the new car is even better with a quality of fit beyond any work the team has done before.