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Sunday, 21 February 2016

Mercedes W07 and McLaren Honda MP4-31 Revealed

2016 Mercedes-AMG W07 and McLaren-Honda MP4-31
Earlier today, two more Formula 1 teams unveiled their 2016 challengers. Stable regulations mean they look really similar to last year's cars and also they're both grey-scale with coloured details, as is fashionable in the boring new world of F1 liveries that are boring. Since McLaren and Mercedes parted ways not long ago, their fortunes have been completely opposite to each other, so let's see what 2016 might hold for each...

Mercedes
2016 Mercedes-AMG W07 Hybrid
Die Silberpfeile have been undeniably wunderbar since the hybrid era started in 2014. They made comfortably the best power unit and with the added advantage of being able to design the chassis around it from day one, it's been their championship to lose... which they haven't. However, it hasn't quite all been plain sailing - a bizarre drop-off in performance at Singapore, a few strategy glitches and the occasional electronics problem have opened the door for the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull (not to mention Williams at Silverstone after a tardy start from the Mercs) to capitalise and snatch a few wins and points off them in the two previous seasons, so despite winning back-to-back driver's and constructor's titles, the people at Brackley and Stuttgart have been working hard to stay ahead and tighten the proverbial and literal loose nuts. Oh, and the livery has more black on it, but whatever.

The exterior changes are chiefly at the rear, with the usual tightening of the tail (smaller cooling outlets), but also a rather large air intake above the driver's head. Occasionally we see extra little "ears" flanking the main airbox on F1 cars at races where cooling will be an issue - well it would appear that they've been integrated into a single bigger unit here. The areas of the engine cover near the airbox are slightly enlarged to accommodate the resultant enlarged pipes. The large air inlet is also angled top-forwards to manipulate the airflow underneath it, which looks rather sleek I think.

Up near the middle, the leading edge on each sidepod has a ridge curving away from it, much like last year's Ferrari.


All that extra air being drawn in will feed another beast of a V6-turbo hybrid power unit. In fact, earlier this year we heard that this year's power units will be making over 900 horsepower in total. That figure needs context: the V8 engines of 2006-13 produced a peak of ~750bhp. The new 1.6-litre turbo engines on their own are now marginally more powerful while using around 30% less fuel in the process. Add in the extra 160bhp or so of ERS power and these hybrid machines have matched the almighty V10s of the early-mid '00s... while using 48% less fuel. 100kg/hour vs 194kg/h. For the same power!! Or rather, the most powerful F1 engine Mercedes has produced. Another eye-popping comparison is this: the most efficient V8 F1 engines had a "thermal efficiency" of 29%. The 2016 F1 power units are at 47%. In other words, nearly half the energy produced by burning fuel and generating electricity is horsepower/torque. They may not scream like the engines of yesteryear, but these things are absolutely astonishing feats of engineering. No wonder they cost so damn much...

As an aside, the reason the lap times aren't record-setting (aside from at Brazil, whose high altitude favours turbo power) is because of the reduced downforce, extra ~150kg of weight and narrower tyres. The actual firepower is approaching an all-time high hitherto only seen in the '80s when engines were turned up to "qualifying boost" for over 1000bhp on Saturdays. Unlike those old fireworks though, these new engines are heavily restricted and must be able to last for at least four whole race weekends in order to get the team to season's end within the rules, which this year stipulate five power units (up from four) must stretch across a record twenty-one races.

Think about that next time Lewis Hamilton cruises to another victory while Nico Rosberg complains that he was overtaken too aggressively again.


McLaren-Honda
McLaren Honda MP4-31
As I just pointed out, the 2015 regulations stipulated that each car must only use four power units - or rather the various elements thereof (engine/turbo/MGU-H/MGU-K/battery/control electronics) - during the season. Due to unreliability, some teams had to use a fifth or sixth one, incurring increasingly steep grid penalties in so doing. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso had to use ten power units. Each. This lead to hilariously idiotic grid penalties of 25, 50 or even 100 positions... on a 20-car grid. It got so farcical that the FIA changed the rules instead of continuing to give out impossible penalties. Suffice to say points count was more 2008 than 1988 for the returning Honda. It was McLaren's worst season for 35 years, with the only highlight being a surprise 5th place at a chaotic Hungarian GP courtesy of Fernando meme-o-tron Alonso. The only team slower was Manor, so hopefully the only way from here is up for the 53-year-old team...



There was talk at one point that Honda had found a whole 200 horsepower over the winter, but Honda themselves quickly managed our expectations on that one. Nevertheless, the winter brought a fresh allocation of development tokens and a chance to overhaul that pesky power unit. Last year it used a small turbo nestled within the vee that was meant to spin at a higher speed than is conventional to make the same power while weighing less. This didn't work; it was unreliable at full boost and at a safer level couldn't charge the ERS enough for it to have full system power down a long straight, meaning that at certain points of the lap the Honda was a full ~240bhp down on the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari. "GP2 engine... GP2... AAURRGH!!" was Alonso's famously astute and insightful review of this issue on the pit radio during the Japanese Grand Prix, for all Honda's home fans to hear. Honda listened and has, among other things, modified (possibly enlarged) the turbo while keeping it in the vee of the engine for that compact "Size Zero" package - sure enough, I'd say the MP4-31 possibly has the narrowest tail of the ones we've seen so far. Maybe. Just.

The chassis team in Surrey have been busy too, evolving lots of clever little details like the "S-duct" at the top of the nose cone that channels air (in an 'S' shape) from the underside to the top surface, a hollow rear axle through which air flows from the brake ducts to the diffuser area, and running the central rear wing support straight through the main exhaust pipe to stabilise the air leaving the engine. You can see a full super-nerdy analysis here of all the changes visible.


The "dynamic predatory graphite" remains, although it's possibly even darker now.
TAG-Heuer and Johnnie Walker have both left as sponsors, replaced by Richard Mille and Chandon
Having so much ground to make up gives McHonda the opportunity for big gains in performance this season, potentially bigger than what Ferrari managed between 2014 and '15 if all goes well. For the sake of the increasingly senior driver lineup, I hope they do turn things around quickly. Ron Dennis believes that "MP4-31’s developmental trajectory has been usefully steepened over the winter," which is Ron-speak for "things are going very well at the moment," so maybe the optimism of the tag #BelieveInMcLaren won't be misplaced in 2016. They will certainly be hoping there are fewer #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe, to say the least...

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