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Thursday, 7 May 2015

McHonda Swaps Chrome For Graphite, How Thrilling For Us All

2015 McLaren MP4/30 (Spanish GP livery)
In a season when changing your helmet design for a race is strictly banned for brand/identity purposes, McLaren-Honda has gone and changed their entire livery for the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix and the remainder of the season. Despite the Spanish GP typically being the race where teams bring in large upgrade packages, the boss of Honda Racing assures us that no engine development tokens have been spent for this race, so there can't be any significant gains there. Maybe instead they're banking on the "go-faster stripes" myth actually being true?

It's fair to say that their initial "colour" scheme for 2015 was a huge letdown, partly because it didn't look like the '80s/90s McLaren-Hondas (more on that in a mo) and partly because it looked almost identical to a McLaren-Mercedes from 10 years ago. Having been given a massive opportunity to create a fresh new look for a legendary F1 team, McLaren's designers bottled it big time, or just straight-up didn't bother. Now, however, Ron Dennis's team has engaged an aesthetic optimisation strategy programme in order to make the sponsors - all three or four of them - stand out a bit more.

McLaren said quite early on that they would change the livery after it was almost universally slated. Initially this just meant that the lower section was sparkly instead of just black, and now we have this. Why isn't it a throwback to the Senna-Prost era? Because that would be strongly reminiscent of Marlboro, whose sponsorship of the old McLaren Honda defined that livery (along with the Penske IndyCar team and many others from around that time). As the writer of F1Fanatic points out, not only is tobacco sponsorship strictly banned, but Marlboro's owners, Philip Morris, own Scuderia Ferrari's advertising space. Why remind everyone of the people that currently make huge money with your arch nemesis? I must admit, this is not something I had considered before...

Scale and photo angles vary
Anyway, the new livery is described by McLaren as "[improving] the MP4/30’s visual impact, optimising it for not only bright sunshine but also for the floodlights increasingly used in twilight and night races. The result is a dynamic, predatory, graphite-grey colouration, complemented by McLaren-dayglo 'Speedmarks' and keylines, reducing the reflection issues caused by our latest chrome-silver treatment" (emphasis mine).

Does it make you feel preyed upon?
Better question:
Does it make you feel preyed upon by dynamic graphite???

Photo angles vary here too, but this time it's McLaren's fault
Sadly, this sex panther of a McLaren probably isn't going to be preying on Red Bulls and prancing horses any time soon, let alone the still-dominant Mercedes cars. Honda have had a tough start to their F1 return, having to run at reduced power to avoid engine overheating only to encounter electrical problems instead... or as well. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have barely had a whiff of a points finish in the first four races, and while Honda's package could be a revelation when it's all running properly, it looks set to be a long time before we can find that out for sure.

As far as we know, the key thing about Honda's "RA615H" power unit is the turbocharger. Like Mercedes, they're apparently running a "split turbo" where the cold side (air compressor) and hot side (exhaust-driven turbine) are sat at either end of the engine, connected via a shaft which has the MGU-H energy recovery sub-system on it. Unlike the Mercedes engine, Honda's turbo runs deeply through the vee of the V6 rather than sitting on top. To achieve this, the cold side at the front consists of an "axial flow" compressor, which looks and operates more like the front of a jet engine whereas a normal "radial flow" automotive turbo compressor as used by other teams looks much like the hot side; a snail's shell of piping with a spinning rotor in the middle. As well as allowing them to squeeze the turbo between the two cylinder banks, the advantage of this system in theory is that the turbo spools up faster, giving less lag and producing a more driveable car along with having greater efficiency. The disadvantage is that it can't produce as much ultimate boost as a conventional turbo, but in a fuel-limited formula, this shortfall is somewhat diminished. When Nando goes on about it being pointless to do it Mercedes's way and how McLaren-Honda is a better bet for him than Ferrari, this sort of thing it probably what he's on about.

Other quirks of their power unit include the intercooler running down the spine of the car, a more compact air intake plenum chamber (air box, to over-simplify it) made of aluminium or a related alloy instead of the normal carbon fibre, and all the various control electronics units being packaged in one little box under the fuel tank. For fuller detail, check out Craig Scarborough's post on Autosport here, from whence the image above came.

The point of all this gubbins optimisation is to make the rear half of the car as compact as possible, so that the aerodynamicists can streamline the bodywork as well as possible to get air to the diffuser as cleanly as possible. Red Bull did this a lot during their era of domination, but these highly complex new V6 hybrid turbo power units need a lot more cooling and take up more space. For the constructors, 2015 has been mostly about finding more efficient packaging of the cooling elements than in 2014. Despite having an all-new, un-tested engine, McLaren were very aggressive in this area, dubbing theirs a "size-zero F1 car." This has given Honda's engineers a major headache as they try to squeeze everything in, but then tight restrictions can often lead to creative solutions, as we see here.

Will it be the next big thing when it's all running at full power reliably? When will that be? Time will tell - personally I suspect we won't see this package running at its true capability until 2016, even if they continue making strides this year - but Alonso, Button and McLaren-Honda seem very optimistic about what their future holds with this car. Be patient, stay tuned in, and #BelieveInMcLaren. That's all we can do for now.


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