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Formula 1 Japanese GP

The four key concept changes that transformed McLaren's MCL60 F1 car

McLaren has gone from Formula 1 Q1 elimination candidates to podium finishers in a matter of months with Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri flanking Max Verstappen at the Japanese Grand Prix. After such a remarkable turnaround, here are some of the ways that the team has achieved this

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, 2nd position, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, 3rd position, drive in formation on their way to Parc Ferme

Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis

Giorgio Piola is the preeminent Formula 1 technical journalist. Born in Genoa, Italy, Giorgio has covered the F1 World Championship since 1969, producing thousands of illustrations that have been reproduced in the world’s most prestigious motor racing publications.

When McLaren launched its MCL60 before Formula 1's pre-season test, it painted a very downbeat assessment of what it had created.

Team boss Andrea Stella was open that the squad was "not entirely happy for what is the launch car" because it knew it had missed some core design ideas as it brought the package together.

"There's some areas in which we kind of realised a little late in development, some really strong directions," he said.

Those directions have emerged over the course of what has been an impressive resurgence for the squad, which secured a double podium finish at last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

Ahead of the race in Suzuka, and off the back of a major Singapore upgrade, Stella offered some fascinating insight into what the key areas of design change were.

Here is a rundown of what he explained.

Outwash front wing

McLaren MCL60 Front Wing development

McLaren MCL60 Front Wing development

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

McLaren has joined other teams in pursuing a front-wing design which delivers as much outwash effect as possible. This has been achieved through better managing the gaps between the flaps and the endplate, as well as the shaping of each aerofoil across the span.

As Stella explained, the current cars are not able to produce as much outwash as the previous generation, but it is still hugely valuable to do what you can.

"Even if this generation of cars inherently reduced the outwashing massively compared to the previous generation of cars, teams are all trying to pursue this objective," he said. "Every little bit you cash in gives you better characteristics, especially in the medium/low-speed corners."

Wider sidepods with water slides

McLaren MCL60 Sidepod development

McLaren MCL60 Sidepod development

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

While McLaren had already moved to the Red Bull-style downwash solution for its sidepods in 2022, it has pushed things on greatly this year.

There are two generic concepts it has pursued in this area of the car – making the sidepods as wide as possible with a big undercut, and then maximising what has become known as the water slide.

"It's very noticeable how much it is wider," added Stella. "We're trying to create a clear pathway for energising the airflow."

There are two aims here: the wide sidepods and aggressive undercut help interact with the floor for more downforce, while the water slides help channel air to work the diffuser better.

"This is not the simplest thing to do," said Stella.

To help enable the aggressive bodywork in this area, McLaren changed the internal cooling arrangements of the sidepods (including radiator and piping) as part of its Austrian GP upgrade.

Return of the floor edge wing

McLaren MCL60 floor development

McLaren MCL60 floor development

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The key to success with the ground effect cars is the design of the floor because it offers so much downforce when you get it right.

It's the one area of the cars that teams are very secretive about – and it's no surprise because getting it right takes so much work.

As Stella said: "The detailed work under the car is one of the most sophisticated and, from an engineering point of view, fascinating thing I've ever seen. "

To further enhance the floor performance from the Singapore GP, McLaren reintroduced the edge wing, something it had originally tried out at the start of 2022 before abandoning.

"It closes a little bit of a loop because, in 2022, our shakedown car had this kind of wing, which was adopted by some competitors," said Stella. "Then we realised that we needed to go all the way through a journey of removing this for some time, so we had the skate under the car.

"Then it was clear that some other cars had removed the skate already at the start of the season, so we changed too. This area of the car gives a lot of performance."

The regulation changes made by the FIA for 2023 required teams to rethink how they dealt with several aspects of their floor design, one of which was the edge wing and the 'ice skate' solution that they had developed as part of that during 2022.

As a consequence of the new regulations, other parameters had to be reconsidered too, including ride height, which seems to have created a trade-off between the benefit of the skate solutions and using an elongated edge wing.

Improving the performance of the floor can often involve tweaks in other areas too. McLaren also made modifications to the rear toe link shroud and brake duct winglets at the Singapore GP because it needed to inject some airflow energy in this area.

As Stella said: "We had some work here because the floor, with our flow vis, it wasn't very happy. It was tired, so we needed to change the profiling with parts here."

Beam wing efficiency

McLaren MCL60, rear
McLaren MCL60 technical detail

With Red Bull's rivals having cottoned on to the fact that the RB19's DRS is so effective because of the drag balance between the rear wing mainplane and beam wing, McLaren has been pursuing that path too. 

From the Belgian Grand Prix, McLaren started cutting back on the drag of its beam wing in the hope that this would help boost the effect of DRS.

"We are working to create the right arrangements of beam wings, so that we can achieve the right level of drag without having to reduce the size of the upper wing too much," he said.

"The beam wing here [in Japan] is relatively offloaded compared to some of the beam wings we were having at the start of the season."

The concept shifts on the McLaren are fascinating, and have served to give rivals hope that they too can make a change.

But perhaps most interestingly, they are also proof, that while there had been concerns about the current generation of cars not offering much scope for design innovation, that fear has been put to bed.

Asked if he was surprised that there was so much scope for individual ideas, Stella said: "I think everyone was surprised by how much development is actually available with this generation of cars. But I would expect this to continue."

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