The concept for the new car, married to a Ferrari engine, falls back on an old adage – keep it simple. The design started from the ideal form of a 'simple' compliant race-car, which was revised to lower the centre of gravity and establish a strong baseline for the engine.
Of course, working around the Ferrari engine makes life easier – it is noticeably more compact than the Peugeot that it replaces, and weighs some 20 kilos less. Routing for exhausts is more complicated, as the unit is reputedly more sensitive to the treatment of its exhaust gases. But for a power hike of nearly ten percent from last year, no-one is worried about the extra work involved in fitting the unit.
Fuel economy is also improved, leading to reduced fuel tank capacity requirements: Prost are being very cagey about overall capacity, but they are clearly looking forward to significantly improved race speed, and there are many in the team who think Sauber, despite their years of experience working with Ferrari engines, will be a soft target in 2001.
Alesi's glee stems from the simple fact that he can get out and drive the car. It goes quite quickly, and it doesn't break down every five laps. Whilst not the fastest in optimum trim, so far it seems relatively easy to set up, which for the modern thoroughbred is arguably better: all circuits require some form of compromise, and the AP04 maintains its handling even when not best set up...
Adrian Newey's assurance that this year the car is the first all-new design since he joined the team has been met with some amusement by others in the paddock. It's a relatively well known fact that an 'evolution' car will normally only carry over fifteen to twenty percent of the components from a previous chassis. The term "new" is usually reserved for a complete change in concept.
Insiders are saying the new McLaren is cosmetically different to its predecessors, as the new rules in 2001 emphasise different requirements from the aerodynamics. So the appearance will change, as the team moves with the time, continuing to maximise downforce. However, internally, the program started back in 1997 – lowering mass, reducing engine size, improving incrementally in all areas affecting performance – is continuing unabated.
The problem is, even if McLaren can find improvements that bring them 50% closer to the optimum car their design concept permits, they would only be gaining a fraction from where they left off last year. This is where things start to get complicated, for the design team has to find new avenues to explore that will bring more outright speed to the car. And the areas which offer the most return on a leap forward are the engine, and the tyres. Given Ferrari are on the same rubber, it puts Mercedes in the hot-seat.
The new Mercedes engine is similar to its predecessor, but – unusually – not any lighter. Dimensions are slightly different, as mass migrates downwards, and the unit is certainly compact by anyone's standards: and for 2001, paddock speculation has the McLaren power plant breaking the 20,000 rpm mark for the first time. The goals of previous units – lower the centre of gravity, improve power delivery, improve horsepower, and reduce overall size and mass in that order – have changed.
The return of traction control makes a difference: getting the power down has just become a whole bundle easier; and rear tyre wear should be about halved. The introduction of grooved tyres, in 1998, ensured that smooth power delivery was the be-all and end-all. What use 900bhp, if it left the wheels spinning and the car going nowhere? Mugen-Honda won races with Jordan in 1998 and 1999 on their driveability, as the customer unit was some 60bhp down on the front runners. However, traction control will permit the full adhesion of the tyre to be utilised at all times, more accurately than any driver can hope to sustain for a whole race distance.
Most of the corners taken over a racing year are low or mid speed, so with this in mind, adding traction control to the equation makes it possible to utilise more mid-range power – so Mercedes has been working hard at extending the width of the power curve, as well as its peak.
Of course, it is not all going McLaren's way.
The FIA has decided that traction control will not be the way forward until the Spanish Grand Prix – and then only if 'guarantees' are put forward by the teams to control other driver aids. Of course, to the McLaren camp, who generally believe the FIA is there to serve Ferrari, it is clearly no surprise to learn that the delay is due to Ithe talian marque: there are no prizes for guessing why Prost, Sauber and Minardi all backed the delay.
Of course, this leaves the team using the existing engine mapping technology, but the new engine was not optimised for smoothness, so the mapping system does not smooth the power as effectively for the drivers. And the lack of traction control means slippage occurs. Between tyres slipping and regaining their gripas the mapping nearly – but not quite – maintains traction, more stress is being put on the engine than anticipated at design, taking it closer than strictly comfortable to its tolerances.
Now, after a week of testing which saw the McLaren team chew their way through half a dozen new specification Mercedes engines, there is significant concern from the Woking crew that yet another season start is going to be blighted by reliability issues.
Williams and Ferrari launch
The public front of the launches have been well covered on the internet and in the media, so the Grapevine has little to add on what has been going on in front of the camera. That said, there are some things going on behind the launch scenes that are worthy of mention.
Rumours persist of Ferrari defecting to Michelin next year, despite denials from the side. However, that was not the talk of the shop floor when the team launched last week: rather, the latest version of the new engine, which did not conform to expectations on the test bench. It exceeded them. The new unit, set up on the dyno with qualifying tolerances, allegedly peaks at nearly 870bhp. There is no way to establish how this will translate in terms of track time, as the 2001 aero-package affects grip differently at medium and high speed compared to the previous engine, preventing a simple comparison of lap times.
Williams have made a big deal about their partnership with Michelin, and it is as well that they do. Despite being headline news when the deal was announced, it appears they are worried about Toyota gaining the lion's share of support in 2002, unless they can demonstrate a powerful case to lead the charge. It seems that the marketing bods at Michelin have decided that a 'new' team, building chassis and engine, and entering the sport as complete novices will receive far more exposure than any other, barring those actively challenging for the Championship. Williams has preferred status this year, and it pays to start early when scoring points to stay that way in the future.
On a different note, Williams 'cautiously optimistic' look at the year ahead could be well placed, according to the team who built the new BMW engine. They are feeling considerably pleased with themselves, after building a whole engine from scratch for the year ahead. Paraphrasing what they are saying among themselves: the new engine is lighter, more compact, and more powerful than last year's model. The curve is about as smooth, and the economy much the same. That is definitely something to write home about.