Customer Service

Editor’s Note: It’s always great to get a new post by former McLaren mechanic Marc Priestly or F1Elvis. I was wondering the same thing…how can Macca be so far off with a Merc lump?

There’s been lots of talk recently about the way Mercedes have managed to create themselves an advantage with their simple, but clever, installation of the power unit within the overall packaging of the W05 F1 car. They do seem to have done a wonderful job, although one might also ask why the other two engine manufacturers and their teams didn’t manage to interpret the regulations and associated challenges in the same way?

The more interesting situation, for me, is how they’ve managed to emerge so far ahead of even the other Mercedes powered teams, who all have the same hardware, including the split turbo arrangement revealed recently.

McLaren for example, undoubtedly a top team with some quite brilliant talent in the technical departments, should be expected to be considerably closer than the two seconds a lap delta we saw as the safety car pealed back into the pits with ten laps to go in the Bahrain GP.

Many have spoken about the advantage for Mercedes of being able to integrate the design of the power unit and chassis installations more closely than other teams, although clearly Ferrari have this same advantage, what exactly does that mean?

I’ll use the example of McLaren as that’s where the bulk of my personal experience lies.

For many, many years McLaren were considered to be the Mercedes ‘works’ team and that brought with it some considerable benefits.
The designers in our drawing office at the team worked so closely with their counterparts at Brixworth, that they considered themselves colleagues. They met regularly and spoke on the phone on an almost daily basis, discussing ideas and thoughts about how to improve both sides.
From the software side, a really key area in F1, the same applied. We found clever tricks in engine management and mapping, and the flow of information, although very carefully kept secret from the outside world, was shared and developed openly between the two companies.

We, as the team, had the unconditional backing of Mercedes Benz and no expense or effort was spared to make sure we had the best possible chance of success. We were one team.

Today of course, things are very different. Those practices are exactly the sort of thing going on inside the Mercedes team and one of the reasons for their slick operation.

Back at McLaren, they’ve found themselves in a tricky situation.

McLaren are now nothing more than a customer of Mercedes and that brings with it a very different working culture. On top of that, the decision makers at Brixworth are all too aware that Honda have themselves very much embedded within the Woking based outfit ahead of 2015 and need to be very careful about just how much information they share.

Having spoken to people at both squads, I understand it’s been a difficult relationship to get right, particularly given the long-standing and deep-rooted history between the two. It’s not just about a corporate relationship, these are the same people who’ve spent years working together as close ‘colleagues’ and friends, who all of a sudden are having to deny access to certain areas of the building or to certain files on their systems.

The upshot of all this is that Mercedes find themselves in a very good position, not just with their current car, but moving forward too.
They have the huge advantage of being able to control the rate of development of their customer teams. The key hardware may not change and I’ve no doubt that engine contracts stipulate some levels of parity between them and everyone they supply, but where they have the edge, the significant edge, is the ability to control the release of vital update information to customer teams.

It may not sound like such a big deal, but of course updates from your engine partner can have major ramifications on other areas of the car and they can take time to react to.

McLaren, for example turned up at the Jerez test in February with their new car, to be effectively handed a brand new set of exhausts from Mercedes with little prior warning. The update, a much, much smaller, more tightly packaged installation, of course has huge benefits to the team, but only if you’re able to design the rest of your ancillary layout around it. Then, and most importantly, the rear bodywork can be remodeled to give massive aero gains.

Until now McLaren have had to live with what they have. They’ve had small staged upgrades in various areas, but such a major change is not the work of five minutes. In Bahrain the car ran with so much space between the exhausts and the bodywork, I’m told you could fit a small suitcase in the gap. That’s unheard of and unacceptable to F1 designers and something that clearly isn’t present on the W05. They, of course knew the new exhausts were coming as soon as the idea was conceptualised and could fit it neatly into their new car many weeks ahead of the others.

McLaren will arrive in China this week with a big aero upgrade to address the issue and it’ll be interesting to see if it helps to close the gap to the front.

The bottom line is that Mercedes do have the best power unit, that’s down to great work from their engine team. They have a great car delivered by the many technical experts at Brackley, but perhaps the biggest advantage they have, are the unrestricted open lines of communication between the two.

They’ve also steered themselves into a position of considerable power over the teams that should be their biggest and closest rivals…their own customers.

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