The first pictures of the McLaren MP4-31 allow us to glean insights into the aerodynamic and mechanical developments for 2016. But the key to McLaren’s 2016 performance lies beneath that tightly-sculpted ‘size zero’ engine cover.
Honda has promised fundamental changes to its RA616H power unit in pursuit of the 200bhp-plus gulf which separated the team from the front runners last year. How much of that we clawed back will not begin to become apparent until pre-season testing begins tomorrow at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Until then, here’s what we can tell about McLaren’s new car.
Front wing and nose
As is typical of several teams the launch-specification front wing matches what the team used at the end of last year. McLaren’s aerodynamic department, in its second year under the direction of ex-Red Bull man Peter Prodromou, has clearly worked extremely hard on developing the short nose concept which the team embraced halfway through last season.
The mounting pylons for the front wing have been heavily twisted and elongated as far rearward as possible within the regulations to guide airflow onto the splitter region. The shape of the nose itself has also been heavily sculpted too, with the pylons forming an aggressive arch to meet the thumb-tip extension in a similar way to what Toro Rosso did last year.
Unlike every other car we have seen so far the MP4-31 features a small slot in the mounting pylons, transferring airflow from the outer side to the flow being funnelled along the centre of the car in a venturi. Considering their length, this will slightly alter the pressure gradient across the two sides of the pylon for a more desirable effect.
The nose also retains the S-duct seen in 2015, with the same split outlet design integrated neatly with the pitot tube/telemetry stack. Having the S-duct cleans up the airflow that would otherwise be disturbed by a step in the underside of the chassis and McLaren’s layout is arguably the tidiest seen so far.
It certainly drew admiring glances from its drivers. Fernando Alonso praised the “fantastic attention to detail” by the aerodynamic team. “The whole car is beautiful in fact,” he added, “it’s particularly nicely packaged from an aerodynamic point of view”.
Front suspension and brake ducts
McLaren has made subtle alterations have been made to its front suspension compared to the MP4-30. The wishbones now meet the chassis at slightly different points compared to 2015 and their carbon fibre sheath widened for improved aero.
The brake ducts are an evolution from last year, featuring their unique clam shell-esque design as well as an additional inlet sitting on top. Judging by the shape of the wheelnut it seems McLaren will run a blown front axle at some stage, hence the need for the auxiliary inlet.
Sidepods and bodywork
Despite the aerodynamic devices around the cockpit area remaining unchanged over the late specification MP4-30, the bodywork thereafter is a strong evolution of the ‘size zero’ philosophy for 2016.
Although the size of the inlets have actually increased for this year – hardly a surprise considering the reliability issues they ran into in 2015 – the overall shape of the sidepods is much cleaner and more fluid. They follow a similar design to that of the Red Bull RB11 in that the sidepod profile slopes towards the outside of the car in places to conjoin the frontal and rearward sections of bodywork.
The tidier design will help improve the rate at which airflow is fed towards the rear of the car, which will further enhance the capabilities of the diffuser and rear wing.
A key area of interest is the engine cover. Around the roll hoop area the MP4-31 features a traditional airbox with a smaller upper inlet accompanied by the larger lower one. At the beginning of last year the upper inlet was used to cool the ERS radiator which was mounted above the engine which meant that the engine cover had to be enlarged to clear it. However this was sacrificed towards the end of last year as the radiator was moved to a more traditional place within the sidepods, making way for a shark fin on the spine of the car.
So it is interesting to see the new McLaren again features a rounded engine cover, suggesting that the ERS cooler is once again back above the power unit. The big question from last year was whether the improved aero benefits outweighed the higher centre of gravity. This is a region we will watch with interest.
Rear end and floor
McLaren tend to keep their cards close to their chest on launch day and often hide away important developments until testing begins. Here the MP4-31’s rear wing appears to be a complete departure from its predecessor.
The long, slatted end-plates which hung down towards the diffuser are gone and in their place a cut-off design with just two vertical slots at their base. This is very reminiscent to what Mercedes have been doing for the past couple of years as this generates a greater up-wash effect at the rear of the car to improve rear grip. These slots have been matched to three sets of curved vanes which intend on producing the same effect.
Above these are no fewer than four slots cut into the endplate just beneath the main plane of the wing itself. Their job is to transfer air from the outside of the endplate to the inner, reducing the pressure gradient across it. This is done to decrease the intensity of the wing-tip vortices that build up as the speed of the car increases and thus reducing drag.
After adopting Ferrari’s upgrade from Singapore, McLaren have retained the multi-slotted floor ahead of the rear tyre to reduce the effects of tyre squirt. Like the ones on the Ferrari SF16-H, they are orientated so that they produce a vortex that displaces any turbulence generated by the rear tyre heading into the diffuser region.
By diverting this turbulence away from the diffuser, the low pressure that is pulling the car into the ground is less disrupted and the diffuser can be worked harder.
Like every other car we have seen so far, McLaren have adopted the inverted ‘Mickey Mouse’ exhaust layout – two wastegate pipes sitting either side and just beneath the main exhaust outlet. The rear wing’s central pylon is akin to that which Toro Rosso used last year, passing through the main exhaust itself before mounting to the gearbox case (see the video).
The rear wing pylon appears to have a mount ready to accommodate a monkey seat winglet above the exhaust. The winglet acts as a linking device between the diffuser and rear wing, generating an upwashing effect on the airflow whilst also allowing the rear wing to be run at a higher angle of attack.
The MP4-30 was widely considered to be one of the better chassis from a grip and downforce point of view last year. The MP4-31 looks set to build on that strength, but surely no engine manufacturer is awaiting tomorrow’s roll-out with a greater sense of anticipation than Honda.
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