MARCH 13, 1995

McLaren's cockpit cock-up

There were dramas at Estoril - just after we closed for press last week - when McLaren drivers Nigel Mansell and Mika Hakkinen began complaining that their new car is too small for them and that they cannot drive without bashing their hands and elbows against the sides of the cockpit.

Team boss Ron Dennis flew down to the test to see for himself before returning to Britain for crisis meetings to decide what can be done. Mansell left the test early last week, refusing to discuss the problem, but Hakkinen confirmed that there are problems because the cockpit is just too narrow.

The 1995 regulation changes insisted on larger cockpit openings to avoid drivers having problems, but these new rules were relating to the longitudinal dimensions of the cockpit rather than the width. The new lateral protection rules have forced most teams to build slightly wider cars but McLaren - keen to keep the chassis as narrow as possible - decided to reduce the cockpit as much as possible, but it seems they went too far.

This would not be a major disaster if Nigel Mansell was not a national figure in Great Britain - with a tendency to complain loudly if things are not absolutely perfect. As things stand, the cockpit cock-up has been front page news in Britain and a major public relations disaster for the team, which loves to be seen as F1's most efficient and professional.

Team spokesmen are busy denying that the problem is insurmountable, but our sources at Woking are reluctantly admitting that there is little that can be done to make life easier for Mansell. Changes can be made to the existing monocoques to give the drivers an extra inch on either side, and this arrangement is expected to be tried at Estoril this week. If it is not successful, the team will have to make do with the monocoques until new - slightly larger monocoques - can be finished. That will not be until mid-April at the earliest, which means that Mansell and Hakkinen will have to struggle in Brazil and Argentina.

There have been plenty of wild rumors in Britain that Mansell might miss the first races, making way for test driver Jan Magnussen, who seems to be the only one of the three McLaren drivers who is capable of driving the machine without interference. This is not very likely as it would force the team to admit publicly that there has been a disastrous design error.

There is no doubt that there will be post-mortems at McLaren to try to work out how such a mistake could have been made. Ever since John Barnard left the team in 1986, Ron Dennis has refused to let his engineers into the spotlight. The unassuming Neil Oatley has fitted the bill well, proving himself to be a competent designer without the ego of some of F1's top engineers. Oatley must ultimately take the blame as he is the chief designer, although McLaren's curious design-by-committee structure means that the layout of the car may have been dictated by aerodynamicist Henri Durand or by chassis designer Matthew Jeffreys.

In addition to the chassis problem, the McLaren drivers found that the effect of the new "mid-ship" wing differs depending on the throttle position. This is explained by the flow of air to the wing alters depending on how much air is being sucked into the airbox. As a result, the car suffers from instability in high speed corners; and the engine mapping is much more complicated than normal.