Saturday, November 12, 2011

Linking Red Bull's fuel loads to McLaren's rear-wing

One of the oddities of the 2011 Formula 1 season has been the contrast between the alacrity with which McLaren responded to the failure of their experimental 'bagpipe' exhaust system in pre-season testing, and their belated, late-season introduction of a Red-Bull style rear-wing, featuring a more powerful DRS effect.

Whilst a new and highly effective exhaust-blown diffuser was available on the McLaren from the first race, the new rear-wing combination, with smaller flap and larger main plane, only began to make sporadic appearances in practice from the middle of the season, and the system was only definitively installed for the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

Now, it's well-understood that a major aerodynamic component cannot be changed independently of the other primary aerodynamic components on a car, so McLaren presumably needed to make changes to the airflow feeding the rear-wing, or deal with the consequent change to the centre-of-pressure, before they could introduce the smaller flap design. Nevertheless, given the clear benefits of a powerful DRS system, as demonstrated by Red Bull from day one, McLaren do seem to have been a little tardy in this respect.

There is, however, a possible exculpatory explanation. Mark Hughes has recently drawn attention to the fact that during Friday practice this year, Red Bull have apparently used a second stint fuel load in the long run phase of these sessions, whilst McLaren have used a first stint fuel load. Conversely, Red Bull have tended to fuel more heavily on the short-run practice laps. This fuel-load combination has disguised Red Bull's real qualifying pace, relative to McLaren, but exaggerated their prospective race pace.

Perhaps, then, in the early stages of the season, McLaren came away from the races believing that their potential qualifying performance was stronger than their potential race performance, relative to Red Bull, and they therefore needed to continue optimising their car for race performance. This, in turn, meant retaining a larger rear-wing flap with a less powerful DRS stall.