JANUARY 20, 1997

The new McLaren's MP4-12...

THE West McLaren Mercedes Benz team hosted a "sneak preview" of its 1997 car at Woking early last Tuesday morning before the new MP4-12 was loaded into a specially-chartered Iluyshin cargo plane and flown to Jerez de la Frontera, in southern Spain, where David Coulthard began testing on Wednesday afternoon.

In fact, Coulthard completed just three corners before the car ground to a halt with fuel pump failure. The following day Mika Hakkinen did 14 laps before another fuel pump problem. Later in the day he completed another 14 laps and then ran for 42 laps on Friday without drama. His best lap was a full second slower than Gerhard Berger in the new Benetton-Renault B197.

The MP4-12 has been designed and built by the same group of engineers who have worked on recent McLarens. The team is headed by chief designer Neil Oatley. Matthew Jeffreys has been project leader for the design of the chassis; David North has again looked after the transmission; David Neilson the suspension and Mark Ingham the engine installation. Aerodynamic work has been conducted as usual at the British government-owned National Physical Laboratory windtunnel in Teddington, Middlesex - which the team recently had upgraded. Henri Durand, the head of the company's aerodynamics has been helped on the MP4-12 by Phil Adey and Peter Prodromou.

Oatley's team has also had input from McLaren's research & development department under Paddy Lowe; the vehicle engineering department under Steve Nichols and the systems engineering department under German Dieter Gundel.

The result is a car which, according to team boss Ron Dennis, is 90% different to the less-than-successful MP4/11. The engine mounting has been lowered allowing for modifications in the rear end around a newly-packaged longitudinal semi-automatic six-speed transmission. The rear suspension features further use of composite parts and the entire rear aerodynamics have been reworked to take into account the new regulations for a rear impact zone and reduced winglets.

The front end has also been reworked considerably with the nose being lowered to improve the airflow. There have also been major alterations in the internal airflow of the car to improve the cooling. These have been developed using advanced computational fluid dynamics software.

The Mercedes-Benz FO110E is a 75-degree V10 engine, designed and built for the German car company by Ilmor Engineering of Brixworth. It retains the same basic architecture as in the last two seasons but features a new sand-cast aluminum alloy block and different internals components. It weighs in at 124kgs which is around the same as the Ferrari V10 but still a lot heavier than the 105kg Yamaha unit. It is, however, a lot lower than the Yamaha, providing a better center of gravity. Ilmor designer Mario Illien is already working on a completely new engine for the 1998 season.

The prototype MP4-12 was unveiled in an orange and black livery - similar to the color of the old (and successful) McLaren CanAm cars of the 1960s. The MP4-12 will, however, be raced in silver this year. Silver is, of course, the traditional racing livery of Mercedes-Benz but is also the color used by West cigarettes - the team's chief backer - for its West Lights brand.

The team's full sponsorship package is to be launched on February 14 at a grand event - for 4000 people - at London's Alexandra Palace.

Dennis says that the team has no intention of appointing a test driver this year as the new FIA testing restrictions are so restrictive that even the regular drivers will not get enough mileage.