McLaren drop controversial suspension programme
McLaren drop controversial suspension programme
Posted By: James Allen  |  13 Apr 2010   |  2:37 pm GMT  |  161 comments

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,

Lowe worked with Red Bull's Newey at Williams in the 1990s

“This was to stop people changing springs and ride heights,” according to Lowe. “Where this has got a little bit tricky is that you can design suspensions that self adjust during that period. There are all sorts of physical means to do that. Imagine a suspension where without any human intervention it changes its set up. You could argue that as you haven’t touched it, it’s not been changed. But what the FIA have now clarified is that even if you don’t touch it, if you have programmed it to change you have effectively made a change of set up.

“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.”

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I guess McLaren is still made Newey left….


I meant MAD!


James, any thoughts on what this might mean for the Red Bulls?

Will this threaten their qualy performance?


So, what’s your take, James? Should the FIA change the ruling to allow for one suspension adjustment in parc ferme between qualifying and the race? Christian Horner has said this will be more cost-efficient for them, but as I understand, RBR has declared that they are against this rule tweak.


Well they would be wouldn’t they.


Ok saying Mclaren have a crappy car might be going too far, but i meant in qualifying compared to red bull. Christian Horner and Adrian Newey have been so direct and adament since these questions started coming up that they have nothing at all, that i really think they have nothing. Like someone else said, if they did, they would be avoiding the questions or useing clever replies to get around it. You can see the anger and frustration on CH’s face every time he is asked this. I even saw a quote from Newey saying they have neither an illegal system, or a legal one like Ferrari. People need to just let it go and realise that red bull have just done a better job


Surely its simple, the fuel cell sits on a slave cylinder, when it is loaded with fuel the gas in that slave and thus master cylinders is compressed slightly more making the car ride higher, as the fuel is used the slave slowly decompresses lowering the internal pressure and lowering the car.


Do you guys not get it? If the ride height is altered in ANY way during parc ferme, no matter what clever system is used, whether it is automatic or manual, it is banned. End of story.

You can come up with whatever weird and wonderful systems you like, but if the ride height is altered, it’s not allowed.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but they are the facts. 😉


Could you explain that idea further please? I was thinking that if it is illegal to alter the ride height and suspension, then any alteration to account for a change in fuel load must be happening elsewhere in the car, and it is the fuel cell which is the changing factor in all this… But I still don’t see how it could work!? If the weight of the car increases and the chassis (unsprung mass) is only supported through the suspension, then surely the ride height must lower? So how could your idea work?


I cant see anything though all this smoke, i think it was a bad move by the FIA, they should of changed it so teams could fiddle with ride hight in qualifying, we wouldn’t have the confusion that we now have, and true pace of teams could be viewed on sat.

why couldn’t they just do that?

This just makes for a messy season if RBR do have a way of changing their ride hight surly?


One simple solution is to allow them all to make one change to the ride height in parc ferme overnight. Then it’s the same for everyone.


I would completely back that move. All this confusion is becoming quite tedious. It’s funny how when McLaren create something innovative, such as the F-duct, it comes under so much scrutiny from the other teams and the media that, even a non-technical minded fan can understand how they do it. Yet with many other teams their innovative ideas are kept completely ‘hush-hush’.


Exactly, then the fans would be less confused. It, would be easy and cheap for the teams to implicate. This would disperse the arguments/rumors within teams, and the cars would be able to go faster and we would know who is fastest on more equal terms (fans want to see this),

if only we had some clever internet blog, where we could get our views heard and passed onto FOTA…..

oh.. wait… see where im going “james”


That’s where we are going..


The laws of physics say that when adding the extra weight of the fuel that the car would drop by a given amount dependant on the spring ratings and the additional weight, if it doesn’t and ‘NO device or system’ is allowed on the cars that would alter this then the Redbull cars have to be illegal.


The biggest change between qualifying and the race is the weight of the fuel. The car chassis and driver weights do not change.

Could the car be designed so the the fuel tank has a separate suspension than the chassis? This would allow the car chassis height to remain constant always on its own suspension, while the fuel tank suspension freely adjusts as it burns off.

Do the rules say that the fuel tank must be fixed (immovable) to the chassis?

How could they design such “separate” suspension system?

Mark D. Johnson

Although I’m not an engineer (my partner is and I run everything by her), It wouldn’t do any good unless it was tied into the suspension, because the weight of the car is measured at the contact patch, where the tire meets the road. You would need stiffer springs, to compensate for the mass of the fuel, but you wouldn’t be able to change them. I had an idea of using the fuel mass as leverage against the suspension, but the FIA shot it down. (It’s considered “active” even if there is no human or external power required to change it). I think what the teams will be looking at next is how to quickly change the ride height during the pit stops.


How ’bout this theory – On motorcycles it is hard to get a conventional rear spring / shock setup to work across all load ranges ie from single rider to two up with luggage; a change in load of maybe 150%. The company, Fournales came along with an air shock that allowed for large load changes by varying the pressure in the shock. Some of these devices have a remote reservoir. Maybe red bull have some type of variation on this idea. The rb6’s hydraulic systems could be used to control the pressure in the shock ie less pressure in qualifying to allow for a low ride height and more pressure for the race on a heavy fuel load. The pressure in the shock could be altered also by varying the temperature of the damnpening medium because it could be some other fluid besides air. This shock setup may also allow the use of softer springs which can have benefits like better traction and can improve the car’s ability ride bumps. We saw a lot of cars having problems with bumps in Bahrain. Maybe Red Bull also have a system that alters the spring preload because when you crank on more spring preload you also shorten the spring and alter the ride height.


Also it’s possible they are using a semi-permeable membrane.This bleeds out gas overnight and draws in hydraulic fluid by capillary action. Gas is compressible whilst hydraulic fluid is not.Simple.


Seeing as we’re all having a stab at this, here’s my wild theory following on from chris green; Doesn’t the RB6 have particularly low exhaust outlets, unusual enough to raise a few eyebrows at the launch? Is it possible that they are harvesting the heat from these to heat up the fluid (or gas) in the shocks to alter their height? Not too difficult to change this, perhaps with a movable heat shield between qualy & start, thereby raising the ride height on the way to the grid? The car leaves the pits at the same height it qualified at, arrives at the start the required 4mm or so higher.

Mark D. Johnson

You might be right, since the RB6 uses a pull rod suspension system, which means the dampers (shock absorbers) are at the bottom of the car.


I’m trying to work out just what could be happening in that RB – if indeed anything is happening.

If we assume that the RB is managing to sit low to the ground in both low- and high-fuel configurations, and yet not have any kind of ride-height mechanism, the conclusion has to be that the added weight of the fuel is not having any effect on the ride-height.

Well, we can’t suddenly make the fuel weightless, but is there something we can do to negate the weight of the fuel-tank?

I’m thinking about something like a sprung mounting for the fuel tank, and then something to help lift the tank while running. Perhaps something like a wing, with lift generated by aero. Or something levered from the downforce generated by the main wing.

But anything I can think of that helps to reduce or negate the weight of the tank would ultimately be a form of mass damper, and probably illegal under the “movable aerodynamic part” rules.

I’m baffled. But then so are the McLaren guys, so I’m in good company…


My thoughts of how the Red Bull ‘system’ or McLaren version would concentrate on a link between the fuel tank and dampers or some similar trickery..

With a tank light on fuel the car would be low, but as the fuel added for race ‘air’ from the tank could be operating indirectly a form of suspension lift…

Can’t think of anything else that might have worked that didn’t incorporate a moveable device, hence why I thought the fuel-tank air volume to suspension height could have been a factor….


James will they be measuring the ride height of the cars before and after fuelling for the race?


Hi James,

putting aside the rights/wrongs/are they/aren’t they in all this, what exactly is going on between McLaren and Red Bull?

McLaren are practically saying Red Bull are getting away with something here (but clearly they don’t quite know what). Then there was the Ron Dennis ECU/sparking plug comment.

I’m used to Ferrari having a moan and in days gone by Flavio too. But Martin Whitmarsh and the ‘new-feel’ McLaren team? It just seems out of type and I can’t figure it out.

Even if they had a genuine gripe, McLaren strike me as a team that would use process, not gossip, to resolve it.

Is there an off-season row between Red Bull and McLaren we don’t know about? (Mercedes engine supply apart – as Red Bull lost that one so McLaren have no reason to be bitter).


I asked Christian Horner that question in Australia. Historically the established big teams have made life difficult for teams that rise up to challenge them, plus you’ve got a bit of the Adrian Newey factor; left McLaren for Red Bull. It’s normal when a team sees a threat


I’m getting so frustrated that people keep assuming red bull have been doing something dodgy. The FIA specifically looked in that area in Malaysia, found nothing wrong, said Red Bull were fine. At worst they have a counterbalance system which has been mentioned before, which i see as been perfectly fine. I also notice Mclaren were saying they knew what red bull had, now Lowe is saying they have no proof that any team is running such a system. Sound more like confusion from Mclaren as to how they could build such a crappy car.



There race pace is as good if not better than the rest!!!

What is quite clear is that RBR have a system that controls ride height or a suspension system that does the same.

If it is the former then it is illegal, if the latter then is it “active” suspension?

The FIA stance would seem to be that any such system would “active” and therefore illegal.

All eyes on qualifying!!!!!


Their race pace!!! Not there!


Hi James, i’ve got a question for you. Would you rate Adrian Newey as Head of the class of F1 Engineering Genius? I’m inclined to think that the Red Bull’s design, as a total package, is far superior than the rest of the field, so much so that, even if the ride height system they may have were replaced, they still have a few tenths up their sleeve. Your thougths please.


Well his track record from the 1990s is very strong. As David Coulthard pointed out through the 2000s his designs hadn’t won that many races in the late McLaren and early Red Bull years, but the technical team around him at RB is strong and stable and he is delivering some of his best work again. If you consider that he was behind the Williams cars of the early 1990s which won everything, then the McLaren of 1998 and 99, he has been at the forefront for a long time.


Your comments are spot on! Thanks for that.


Very technical and complicated topic on ride height. Only wished there’s some form of illustrations or digrams so we can understand more for fans who are not engineers or techinical personels.


Hi James,

So if ‘nothing’ can be changed during parc ferme then what makes Ferrari’s system different? Whether manual or auto changing stays changing so then Ferrari’s is surely illegal?


Because it is a mechanical system which is lowered during pit stops, so the car runs for half of the race at a better ride height. Changes during pit stops are permitted, as it says in the article. The interesting thing with the Ferrari is that the car is still very fast in qualifying, a tenth off the Red Bull in Bahrain and 8/100ths in Melbourne.


They are riding too low in the first stint by way of sacrifice to gain qualy pace?


An Open Letter and Request to James Allen

Dear James ,

Your blog / forums are the best thing about Formula 1 nowadays.

I read 7 or 8 sites but most are filled with drivel and excuses as to who did or didn’t do what, and I don’t bother to read responses to their articles.

You, however, are usually at least thought provoking, an usually very interesting and informative as well.

I have been following Formul1 since around 1964. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the great drivers race, although not in F1, except Long Beach the year Lauda came out of retirement.

Most of the time I was at the Can-Am races at Laguna Seca.

I am writing to you both as I have a suggestion/ request to you both, and if you either or both could somehow arrange it, I and I’m sure most of your audiences would enjoy it immensely.

Ask for your readers to submit a list of questions, suggestions and concerns to you regarding things like aero, KERS, larger wheels, ground effect, down force, engine size and type, tires, brakes, and the publics’ view of f1 in their opinion and order of priority. The reason I ask this is that it seems to I recall that ground effect was banned because of high cornering speeds. There was concern that with little or no suspension, that a stuck skirt, broken suspension or puncture would be hugely dangerous.

At the same time, I recall great battles that lasted sometimes for a lap or more (Gilles and Rene for example) during the Turbo- Ground Effect era, and this type of racing is sorely missed now. On top of all that I mentioned before, I started to notice that I not the only one that thinks these last few years have produced THE UGGLIEST F1 cars in history.

With the present day cars producing probably as much negative lift now as they did back then, it seems to me that we need to return to the thinking of the not too distant past, as now, the floors and wings are the equal of ground effect, but don’t allow close following.

I also think that Turbo V-4’s with Kers would be something relevant, with fuel changes over time to adapt to upcoming technologies.

I personally think that with V-4’s there would be room for flywheel Kers, which would obviate the need for batteries, and the associated recycling. Additionally, reducing the fuel capacity by 40% would cause the need for a pit-stop and would open the window as to when it took place. No mandatory time stated. I also think limiting the amount of fuel for the race would be a good idea, but engine development should be allowed as necessary to develop better fuel efficiency.

I think ferrous brakes should be required as the carbon brake don’t really have much use in day to day driving, and they are hugely expensive, and have made passing under braking nearly impossible, if for no other reason that the braking distances are now so short.

Limiting the number of elements allowed in the wing to 2, with limited maximum camber, thickness, chord , span and area of end plates would be great in my mind.

Then combined with ground effect with maximum tunnel volume specified, we could hope for cockpit adjustable rear wing sections that could assist both cornering passing and braking.

All things related to great racing. Managed by the drivers. Pilots do it all the time, and aircraft have had ailerons , flaps, spoilers and speed brakes since the 1930’s.

I love to have these Ideas/ questions put to a group of designer from the teams where there was 3-5 of them there to give the fans some understanding of their thought s on these and others ideas.

Is this at all possible to do during a few race weekends?

I’d absolutely love it

Thank you both for taking the time to read this if you did. You’re my 2 favorite f1 people on the web.




Thanks for that. Some of the things you suggest are in the pipeline already, particularly on the engine side. The idea of the site is for it to be a touch point for the fans to the sport, so they can get more out of it. Ideas put forward here do get through. There was an item on the agenda at the most recent FOTA meeting in Malaysia, put forward by one of the readers here. I have a number of plans and will put your suggestion in with them.


Awwwww we gotta know which idea was discussed that was put forward from a reader / contributor of this site ?????


Oh God no… please don’t say they’re considering that?!!

It’s bad enough that they force the top 10 to start on the tyre they did their fastest lap on.

What’s so wrong with the rules being the same for every car on the track? At least we know then that their position is a true result of the team/driver/car performance on the day (force majure aside!).

Find ways to improve the show by all means, but it has to be consistent across all competitors. Manufacturing a rule advantage/disadvantage of one car over another isn’t sport to me.


The one about the top ten cars in Q3 being forced to qualify on hard tyre and start race on it.


Oooh that’s interesting. Any chance we’ll ever know what that discussion was about?!


I’d say he was suggesting James and Allen work well together!:)

Mark D. Johnson

Maybe he was thinking James and Allen are two different people.


Me too!I wonder if he thinks James Allen is two people, James and, er… Allen!!!


i’d like to know who the second person is that barry is talking about….


Yes please, can you elaborate James???!!!


From a very quick design sketch, it seems that it is possible to implement an hydraulic counterbalance system which would apply more lift or support to the suspension when the fuel load was increased.

As the fuel load reduces so would the load which the fuel applied to the counterbalance unit, allowing the suspension to self level.

Properly designed this system would lower and raise the suspension purely relative to the weight of fuel being carried.

No human changes needed at all other than putting in or taking out fuel.


That would make it an “active” system, which is clearly banned. If the ride height changes with the weight of the fuel, its active not static.


I don’t think I agree.

The normal suspension slightly lowers when a full race load is added to the car, lowering the car.

If you were correct normal suspension would also be an “active”.

My design just applies the fuel load in such a way that counterbalances its weight.

No ??

Roy Page


It’s a still a self adjusting system, therefore banned.


I know what you’re saying, but the fact that it maintains the ride height regardless of the weight of the fuel makes it active. The way it is with passive system, the fuel lowers the ride height, therefore the teams need to run higher ride height in order to not wear the planck, if your system keeps the ride height constant as the fuel is spent(making the car lighter) then its active.

Mark D. Johnson

I have an idea for adjustment to ride height that seems simple, and was wondering if it would be considered legal. Couldn’t a team use the weight of the fuel as leverage to adjust the height? When the car is light, the height would be where they want it to be. As you add fuel (and weight), the forces could be used as leverage which counter the gravitational forces pushing the car down, thus leaving it in perfect trim throughout the race as the car gets lighter. I realize this would take a lot more engineering to calibrate the counter forces. Couldn’t this be what Red Bull is doing?


I’m not an engineer, but I reckon you’ve just described a fairly simple Active Suspension mechanism!

Mark D. Johnson

I don’t think so. It’s called a Fuel Weight Damper system. It has nothing to do with the suspension, it just keeps the floor off the track. (maybe it will get by them)


Says it all….What you can do in the RACE.


I thought the plank was designed to stop cars running too low to the ground. All you need to do to stop ride height cheating is make it thicker.


That wouldn’t work. The issue isn’t that the cars are running “too low”. It’s that some cars might have suspension that is self adjusting to run as low as possible with both little fuel and full fuel.

No matter the thickness of the plank you have to set up the car in qualifying to have a higher ride height, as the car is light on low fuel, so that when race fuel is added there is enough room for the suspension to compress without the legality plank hitting the ground.

Changing the thickness of the plank would only alter the minimum achievable ride height, nothing else. It would have no effect on controlling variable ride heights.


The way I understand it the planck was implemented to keep the teams from running too low of a ride height, if the plank is worn to less than XXmm then the car is disqualified. It was for safety reasons, if the ride height is too low, the car can bottom out(the bottom of the chassis will hit the road on bumps), which causes the driver to loose control of the car. At the time it was thought that one of the reasons for Sennas accident was that the car bottomed out.


McLaren certainly expends a lot of breath making non-statements about what other teams are doing. Or not doing. That whole team is just wrapped to tight, in my opinion.


So true.

But how cool is their site? JA on F1 is my first stop for F1, but the Mclaren site is some state of the art www. Everything is so inflated in F1 these days. Mclaren going overboard are in entirely in keeping with Bernie’s masterplan. It’s aiming for a kind of round the clock intensity which is all rather exploitative and indulgent and removed from the poetic appeal F1 had previously, a good number of years ago.


Thanks for your reply, you expressed something I’ve felt and haven’t articulated.

When I think McLaren, I like to think orange cars shaped like cigar tubes — easily as pretty as the Lotus 49 and the Eagle, but never mentioned in the same breath. And the man himself, Bruce, humble yet driven to achievement. Not a natural driver, but he drove race cars because he had to, which makes his death all the more sad.


I think the fia should state that ride height adjustment can be set on low fuel, then 1 change to that once quali ends.

Surely that would create a better performance for all in quali then level off for racing.

you mentioned that teams and the fia have the possibility of measuring ride height via photos. Presumably if this is the case they would warn redbull had they seen proof?

Do you see this as the fia putting a shot across the bows, and avoiding another public row like mass damper/double diffuser/active suspension (need I go on).

I must say it must be very frustrating for f1 designers and engineers these days. Not much room to innovate. Leaps like braking/semi auto gearboxes etc just won’t happen.

And I doubt my road car would benefit from a stallablw rear wing 😉

on that note, what is your road car. I’d have you down as a 911 man?


“on that note, what is your road car. I’d have you down as a 911 man?”

James answered this same question a month or two back… it’s a Land Rover Discovery. Can’t remember which model.


So RB might have come up with a very neat and according to them legal solution and you want to punish them by given everybody else a leg up? Yes that would be frustrating for the RB designers.


Who said punish? I said make it clear, stop a silly arms race where money is spent for no good reason and could be avoided.

I am all for innovation but simple rules and common sense also have to have a place too.


[Quote]I think the fia should state that ride height adjustment can be set on low fuel, then 1 change to that once quali ends.[/Quote]

My thoughts exactly. Its a simple fix theoretically as long as the rules can be clarified/amended without a mile of red tape and unecessary bad press.

Why not, its “green” energy – its free speed, as is the F-duct. Especially since it is permitted to adjust ride height during pitstops anyway, then lets have manually adjustable ride heights under the drivers control and all done via the standard ECU so its all transparent and under FIA control.

Let everyone do it in a controlled way and it avoids any suspension-gate suspicion too. Sorted, no confusion, no controversy, mess avoided.


Well I for one can’t wait to find out how this system actually works. Whether it be a piece of technical wizardry or a cunning interpretation of what the rules allow. I’m sure James will do a good article on it when the news comes out. In the mean time, happy guessing! 🙂

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