McLaren’s engineering director Paddy Lowe took part in a Vodafone teleconference today to discuss the ongoing debate over adjustable ride heights, a hot topic at the moment because of the advantage Red Bull have in qualifying by appearing to be able to run the car low to the ground in qualifying, but then raise the car up for the race when 160 kilos of fuel go in.
He said that McLaren has dropped its programme to develop its own ride height control system in light of the FIA’s rule clarification last week, but said that he believes McLaren will be closer on pace in qualifying to the Red Bull anyway due to aero developments. He believes that the wet qualifying in Malaysia masked McLaren’s true development step in single lap trim.
Although Lowe didn’t mention a figure for what an a ride height adjuster might be worth in lap time, another engineer told me that it’s roughly a tenth of a second for every millimetre, so if the suspension was moved by 4mm, which would be ideal, that would equate to 4 tenths of a second.
Red Bull strenuously deny that they have any system which changes the suspension and following the Malaysian Grand Prix the FIA issued a clarification of the rules on what is permitted. Lowe said today that this had stopped McLaren from pursuing the system that they were planning to introduce in Shanghai this weekend.
“Now that the FIA has taken a fresh view of it and drawn a different line – and one we think is nearer the historical line – we are reacting to that too, so we’ve had to change some of the things we’re doing, ” said Lowe. “We had things we were working on which we have now suspended.
“We were aware over the last few months of a different approach to it [the suspension system]; an approach which historically we hadn’t thought to be the typical interpretation [of the regulations], and we were reacting to that.”
This all goes back to wording for rules which were written to end the “active suspension” era in 1993, ironically a programme that Lowe worked on at Williams, who dominated that technology.
There are two aspects to this issue. There is what you can do to adjust the height of a car between qualifying and the race, when the car is in parc ferme and then there is what you can do during the race.
In the first case, there is a clear rule there which says that any change to the suspension would require you to start from the pit lane,
“They will inspect the cars (in China) and look at what equipment is there and how it works,” in light of the new clarification.
Lowe also spoke about the clarification the FIA has also made regarding what can be done during a race to adjust the suspension, “There are systems which can be developed, which control ride height during a race, a bit like an active suspension, ” he said. “But without using external power. Such systems were captured by that interpretation, they are no different from active suspensions even if they don’t use external power.”
During a pitstop you can still adjust the ride height, but you cannot do it on the grid.
It was always going to be the case, once refueling was banned for 2010, that if a team could find a way within the rules to run the car low in qualifying and then raise it up for the full tank running, it would be very competitive. Red Bull would not have been able to put anything on its car without first running it past the FIA’s Charlie Whiting, as with the double diffuser last season and the McLaren rear wing this year. It is his job to interpret the rules, see whether a proposed design fits it from there to state the FIA’s interpretation.
It will be interesting to see whether this changes anything with regard to what is already on the cars.
McLaren has been focussed on its revolutionary wing and on optimising its aerodynamics and didn’t get onto the adjustable suspension early enough, according to Lowe,
“We got the feeling we were rather late to the game, relative to some others.” said Lowe. “We don’t know if anyone has been racing anything in the nature of ride height control systems. We definitely got the feeling that others were further advanced in development.”