Q&A: McLaren's Paddy Lowe on rules, tyres and upgrades
We are only two races into the 2012 season and although it has only won one victory, McLarens MP4-27 is considered one of the strongest cars on the grid. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, the British teams technical director Paddy Lowe discusses Mercedes innovative DRS system, exhaust-blown diffusers, the forthcoming Chinese event and tyres
Q: There seems to be some uncertainty about the legality of Mercedes F-duct/DRS system. What is your opinion on it? Can we expect to see anything similar on the McLaren?
Paddy Lowe: I think there are a number of points being debated behind the scenes. We dont have a strong view one way or the other. I think what we need at this point is clarity. I would say it would have been better to have clarity before now. So well have to see what the next event - in China - will bring us in that sense. Until weve got clarity its difficult for us to commit a huge about of effort in that direction. So thats where we are at the moment.
Q: Would you say its legal in your understanding of the rules?
PL: Its a tricky one to be honest. Im not going to pin my flag on one side or the other. Its almost like a point of law. Its about how you read text and what you think it means. So I dont think we can be drawn on that.
Q: Will the McLaren feature major upgrades in China this weekend. And how confident are you they will maintain the teams qualifying advantage?
PL: We have quite a few upgrades for this event, on pretty much all sections of the car. So were hoping for a reasonable step in performance. However, we expect that is only what we need to do to stay where we are, in terms of qualifying and race pace. I would be surprised if our principal competitors arent also coming with reasonable steps forward. So thats the name of the game. Its a relentless battle for in-season development, particularly amongst the top teams. Its started already and well have to play our part and see if we can maintain the qualifying lead we had at the first two races.
Q: McLaren have won three of the last four Chinese Grands Prix. Why does the team do so well in Shanghai?
PL: I honestly dont know the answer. Its not just to do with us and Shanghai. You do find these trends where certain teams do well at certain races. Not every time but teams do certain tracks where they do well. I frankly dont understand it. It may just be how the dice fall or whatever. There isnt anything particular about China that I would think would suit our car particularly for instance. Malaysia is a very similar circuit in terms of its characteristics and what it demands of the car and yet we havent been so successful at Malaysia.
Q: Your driver Lewis Hamilton talked about needing a bit more race pace after Malaysia. Have you looked into that? Are there any concerns that hes taken two pole positions so far this season but hasnt won a race yet?
PL: Its very difficult to conclude anything from the Malaysian race itself. It was a race dominated by tyre conditions, and in particular tyre temperatures, and that dominated the underlying performance of the car. A great example of that was Jenson (Button), who came out into clear air on a new set of tyres from near the back and put in some extraordinary pace, as his tyres were in the correct temperature window. As soon as he came up on some traffic, and didnt get past immediately, you lose that temperature and you spiral into much lower performance to the extent that sometimes the drivers you catch up start to leave you behind again. So the temperatures dominated. Wed look to Australia for a better reference for our race pace. As you know, we were a bit challenged for fuel consumption in that race and it wasn't a particularly clean race. But it does look as though we have a greater qualifying advantage than we have in the race, and that is something we need to work on. It's a characteristic that we had in reverse with Red Bull last year, where we felt they were very strong in qualifying and got the good grid positions, but actually in races they weren't particularly better than us. They just had track position. It does come down to the management of the tyres, whether by the driver or by the team in terms of the configuration of the car. Thats where youre trying to get a balance between qualifying and race pace. There is some indication that the tyres this year are more difficult to work with and therefore it presents some new challenges for us. All the teams will be finding that, so theres definitely some more work to do there and it may differ between what our two drivers require.
I think it was fantastic to get the grid positions that we got in Australia and Malaysia. We are very, very pleased with those. For me qualifying at the first race of the year is a validation of what youve done over the previous eight months. Even though there were no points for it, actually getting the front row was a tremendous boost for the team and a great illustration of what they'd achieved. But we do come away from the first two races slightly disappointed that we haven't translated those two qualifying results into more points. Of course, we have got some good points, but in this championship that is long and hard, you need to score the points when you've got the performance, because you can't rely on sustaining it throughout the season. We're determined to go to China and not only get the front row again if we can, but to turn that into a good points haul on Sunday.
Q: Are some teams still using blown diffuser technology? Are McLaren still doing it?
PL: It kind of depends what you mean by a blown diffuser. And actually blown diffusers in themselves have never been defined and therefore were also never banned. Thats an important point to make. What we were doing last year was exploiting the exhaust to deliver a huge amount of aerodynamic performance and for this year that performance has been severely reduced by changing the rules around exhaust exits and engine mapping. Are people still generating performance from the floor, including some elements of exhaust- generated downforce? The answer is yes. We are doing that and I think most of the teams are to a greater or lesser extent. Its a direction where you can find some performance, but its not anything like as extreme as it was in 2011. The regulation changes have therefore achieved what they set out to do.
Q: Do you think its in the spirit of the rules?
PL: There's no such thing as the spirit of the rules. It's a term often used, but the rulebook is text that has a meaning, and you decide what that meaning is and you work to it. There's no headline regulation that says 'above all else, you've got to remain within the spirit of what was intended. If you look, for instance, at the system thats being talked about on the Mercedes, you could get into arguments there about whether it's in the spirit of what was intended with DRS. Well, it definitely wasn't. DRS was a set of rules was created to make the rear-wing flap, it wasn't anything else. The debate around whether they can keep that system on the car is not about whether it is in that spirit or not, it's about whether the text of the regulations means they cant.
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