McLaren Racing – Question time

What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?

According to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer is 42. Whether that’s entirely correct is open to debate, but what’s not is humankind’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge. We’re an inquisitive bunch and that’s certainly true of McLaren fans. In the build up to every grand prix, we ask you to pose your questions to #TheFifthDriver who, with the help of various team members, gives you the answers you seek during live commentary on and the McLaren App.

The questions fired our way range from the sublime to the strange, but all are worthy head-scratchers – well, most of them. This got us thinking: what if we collected the best questions and answers from every race weekend this season and made them readily available to you, right here – just in case you missed them during commentary?

Cue ‘Question Time’! The ultimate, living, breathing, 2021 McLaren F1 FAQ – a repository of information that’s the next best thing to having McLaren F1 Technical Director James Key on speed dial. 

Q: What sort of plans may have more priority during the shortened practice sessions? Has this already affected the way weekends are being approached? @BonzoKEN

A: This year our Friday sessions are 60 minutes rather than 90. This definitely alters our thinking. The sort of thing you’ll see throughout the season is going to be a little different to what we’ve been doing in the past and involve a few more conscious trades: we can’t do everything we used to do.

In the past, for instance, we may have had a programme where we planned to do a specific test that involved taking the floor off and changing it between runs, in a session that we also intended to finish with some high-fuel continuous running. Now, you might need to choose between one or the other.

What that’s likely to entail across 2021 is more split configuration testing between the two cars, or tests that take place between FP1 and FP2. We’ll be trying to do quicker turnarounds in the garage between runs and will be reluctant to do the sort of test that requires 20-30 minutes of downtime in the garage.

Ideally, by making those compromises and rebalancing our programme, we’d be able to get as many laps in during a 60-minute session as we used to do in 90 minutes – but in reality, we’ll probably be doing fewer laps and will be time- rather than tyre- or mileage-limited.

Q: How much is known about the durability of this season’s new tyres in race conditions?@f1mclarenfan

A: 2021’s tyres are the same compounds as 2020 but with slightly different constructions. They’re designed to be a little more robust but as a consequence seem to be giving up a little bit of front grip. They’re expected to be a little bit slower – but the starting pressures mandated by Pirelli will be a little lower.

Q: Will the shortened practice sessions impact on testing long runs and reliability with the new engine – how do you think teams will manage this?@Aimee_J_

A: Inevitably, there will be a little bit of clipping in the length of long runs, which perhaps means a less complete dataset for our specific installation, and less knowledge about the cumulative effects of factors like vibration and cooling. Nothing much to do about that – and it’s the same for everyone.

On the other hand, there are eight cars running the same Mercedes power unit, which means a broader dataset overall. Our mileage will shrink – but perhaps not by much. With the proviso that one Friday programme isn’t a big enough dataset to really know, there are some early statistics to look at.

Last year, in FP2 for the Bahrain Grand Prix, the McLarens did 30 laps and 33 laps. That’s higher than usual because we had an extra set of test tyres. Take those out and it was 25 and 23 laps. The long runs at the end of the session were 17 laps each. In FP2 this year, the lap counts were similar: 22 and 25 laps, but the long runs were cut to 12 and 13 laps.

Q: How do you compare sim data to the actual car itself? Is it usually wrapped up in pre-season testing or do you continuously keep doing those tests in the first few races?@AnonymousBoeing

A: It never ends. Every session on track provides another set of real-world data that will be compared to the models and then used to refine them. Simulators have reached a high level of sophistication now, but there are always improvements to be made in the correlation – and that’s especially true of a new car.

Q: How is the mood in the team, apprehensive or quietly confident? – @PeteTunstall

A: Frankly Pete, if anyone in the pitlane isn’t apprehensive then they’re probably not doing it right! The opening qualifying session is one of the great moments of the season, with everyone keyed up for the first chance to see genuine, outright pace. It’s very exciting.

Q: How ‘out of routine’ did you get through the winter break? Last season’s run of races was pretty intense, and the team worked hard to ensure everyone got some time away before the new season started – and three months without a track day does leave everyone a bit rusty.@_charleylouisew

A: There’s plenty of work done at the factory to restore sharpness, but it’s really only being in the garage, at the tests and now the race, that brings everyone back up to ‘match fitness’. But even now, things that felt completely natural take an extra moment of thought. That’ll go away fairly rapidly.

Q: Describe racing in Bahrain in three words!@yerisbtch

A: Lots of answers from around the team, most of which involve the word ‘hot’ – but right now it’s: launch, strategy, and tyres. We’ve seen everyone’s genuine one-lap pace in qualifying – but long runs are a different matter.

In the race, position after the first lap will play a large part in determining strategy, and then making that strategy work will depend on the relative unknown of getting the best out of the tyres under those conditions. While we did race simulations at the test and on Friday, it isn’t quite the same thing.

Q: Who chooses which side of the garage each driver and their teams go to? @kerrxsmxth

A: For the last few years, incoming drivers have inherited whichever side of the garage was free. When Lando and Carlos Sainz started at the same time, they took the sides their race engineers, Tom Stallard and Will Joseph, were already working on.

It has been done other ways in the past: there was a time when the driver finishing higher in the championship the previous year got the stall nearest the pit entry. That led to a quite strange situation of Lewis and Jenson swapping sides on a regular basis depending on whether they were turning right or left to go to the pit exit.

That system went away about a decade ago and afterwards it was fixed at the start of the season. (Everybody found it very strange when Jenson subbed at Monaco and was on Fernando’s usual side rather than ‘his’.) Daniel has inherited the right side (looking in) from Carlos, with the engineers and most of the crew who previously worked on that side.

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