Our Technical Director discusses the philosophy behind the VJM11 and casts his eye on the development race for 2018.
Andrew, the VJM11 is finally born. How did it come to life and how much does it share with its predecessor?
AG: “I’m obviously glad to see the VJM11 break cover. The production process has taken many months and I believe we have made very good progress over the winter: it took hard work by the whole team but now we’re here and we are all looking forward to finally seeing the car run.
“We jumped many hurdles on the way, starting with the homologation test. The introduction of the halo meant it was quite a different process from previous years; it was a significant challenge but the team rose to it admirably. We passed the very demanding test at the first time of asking and had a fully-homologated chassis ready at the beginning of the new year, which was a fantastic achievement. I believe we were one of the first teams to do so.
“Looking at the VJM11, the DNA of the car is still very much that of last year’s car. We took the decision, quite a while ago, that the launch specification of the 2018 car would be based around our understanding of the 2017 car, but with all new structures required by the regulations in place. It is a starting point, a good reference from which to introduce changes quite quickly; it gives our aerodynamics department more time to develop a car for the first race in Australia, rather than having to release parts early for testing.”
Of course, the introduction of the halo – quite late in the season – must have affected the design process quite dramatically…
AG: “The final spec came very late, in late summer, and it was a huge challenge for our team – one to which our designers rose fantastically. It was a great job to achieve what they did in the time they had and to get it right first time.
“The halo itself took a lot to accommodate. As far as the mechanical aspect, the chassis had to be completely redesigned and hugely reinforced to take the loads imparted through it. We can’t do this in a haphazard way; we have to do it thoughtfully with efficient structures in mind, because the weight of the halo itself and the structure required to mount it is significant. The mandated overall weight of the car has gone up but not by the same amount we had to add with the whole Halo assembly. Everything has been focussed on creating efficient structures and minimizing the weight impact and that was the first hurdle we had to overcome.
“The halo is solely designed to protect the driver, not to be an aero device, so its impact on the car’s aerodynamics is significant. We have the opportunity to apply some cladding around parts of the structure to try and mitigate the losses, but it’s still a very difficult structure to make aerodynamically neutral. At the moment, it has a negative effect, but we are in the process of minimising its impact and hopefully we will get it down to zero in the near future. It’s one of the challenges we are dealing with at the moment – it is not a massive one but it is something we would rather not have from an aero perspective. It’s the same for everyone, however, and you will not see a final solution until we get to Melbourne.”
That won’t be the only change in the way the cars look, though – the shark fin is gone too…
AG: “It is gone but not fully – there is still a significant portion of the engine cover but it does not extend fully as it did last year. I personally have no objection to the shark fin: I can see the aesthetical reasons for removing the upper T-wings and I am happy they are gone, but last year’s engine cover was one of the biggest pieces of real estate on the car. To remove it or make it smaller flies in the face of the efforts we are making to grow the team, so I hope it returns in the future as the team would benefit from the opportunity to sell that space.
“Aerodynamically, the difference is not big. I’d rather have it but we can do without it.”
This time last year, you predicted we wouldn’t see the teams’ development tapering off until well into 2018. Do you still believe that is the case?
AG: “I definitely do not see any tapering in development at the moment; maybe we will see it at the end of the year but maybe not even until 2019. The development slope we are seeing from an aero perspective is still very steep and the incentive to bring upgrades to the car as soon as possible is as high as it was last year. 2017 was a very big change to the aero regulations and to fully exploit those was always going to take a long time.
“We spent a lot of time last year, with the VJM10, learning and trying a lot of different ideas and concepts in the background. Especially when we could see we had some breathing space on the teams behind us, we used a lot of our Friday practice sessions to this effect – not going out to put performance on the car, but working on future learning. The fruits of this will be evident in the early part of the season, when the car will undergo some significant changes.
“I expect us to follow a development pattern similar to last year’s – lots of smaller updates almost every race, interspersed with some bigger ones. The changes for 2019 are currently pretty small, so we will want to develop this car until the end of the season. We hope to be able to carry over the philosophy of this car into next season so some stability in the regulations for a couple of years would be good – at least until the big tsunami of changes planned for 2021.”
In the light of this, would you expect the field to grow closer or spread out further?
AG: “I am expecting improvements from all teams and I anticipate the field will start to compress, especially around the midfield. McLaren have a new power unit, Renault made progress last season and will have carried on during the winter – I don’t expect significant changes to the pecking order but everything is possible. How close we are going to be to the top three, that is something we will need to wait and see. They always have the capability to take a step away from us during the winter development compared to us, but we seem much better matched to them during the season. Doing that in 2017 was a fantastic job and we will aim for the same in 2018.”
How much of our hand will we show in the two weeks of testing in Barcelona?
AG: “I expect our car to be on a comparable level to the end of last season - a more refined version of it but one that shares its same philosophy. What comes after we start bringing upgrades, however, is a completely different way of thinking. It is important we set ourselves a good baseline and a good foundation of knowledge, so that when we make the changes we are planning we know exactly what we are doing.
“Barcelona in February is not very representative of what we will experience during the season – few places are – even more so now that it has been resurfaced. We will witness massive amounts of track evolution over the next two weeks, so the way that influences our set-up decisions and the direction of our development will have to be assessed very carefully. Given the changes to the track surface, we have no real idea where the start point is but we know it will be very different from previous years. It will certainly keep our tyres guys busy.
“We tend to view winter testing less as an occasion for performance and set-up running and more as a chance to focus on fingerprinting our car and understanding what we have. Have we delivered what we thought we would? Answering this takes a lot of mapping work and this is what we will be doing in Barcelona. We will be checking the car to see if it operates as we designed it. Of course, we will also focus on accumulating mileage for reliability – we cannot take our eye off it. Our reliability last year was outstanding: we set the bar very high and we have got to keep it there. The next two weeks will be crucial to make sure we have designed a solid vehicle and take care of any teething problems, so that when we hit the track in Australia we don’t have anything to be overly worried about.”
A crucial element of the car, of course, is the person sitting inside it. It’s year two for the Sergio Perez - Esteban Ocon partnership…
AG: “I am looking forward to it. They are two great drivers who show fantastic aggression at the right times and calm when they need to – we couldn’t ask for a better pairing. 2017 was a very big learning year for Esteban, who came in as effectively a rookie alongside Sergio, the seasoned professional. Esteban was very quick out of the blocks and his qualifying pace was amazing; he worked very hard on his racecraft on Sunday afternoon and tyre management, which is where his driving improved. Sergio, whose tyre management is one of the best on the grid, extracted information from Esteban on qualifying techniques and improved massively there. In a sense, they went to school on each other and that pushed the team forward. I am anticipating more of the same this year and I expect them to be in a much closer battle, pushing each other hard.”
The VJM11 finally hits the track this morning – how eager are you to see the new car in action after all these months of planning?
AG: “I have wanted this to happen for about two months now! Once we come back from the Christmas break, that is the time we want to get the car on track and to start gathering data and making decisions about future development. Still, it’s good to have some rest. Sometimes you get too close to the coalface and don’t see what goes on around you, so it’s important to take a breath for a while and reflect before getting back into it. The winter months are the time to get a feeling for where the team needs to go and what we need to be doing during the next 12, 24, 36 months.
“Getting feedback about the new car is the main motivation for going testing. It’s the same every year – we are itching to get back into it and we have the same motivation and desire to go racing again and carry on learning. We spend eight months a year gathering data, feeding it back into the factory and making decisions based on it. That loop is what we live and breathe and when it’s shut off for nearly four months it’s very difficult, something is amiss. There are a lot of decisions to be made and we don’t have the data on which to make them anymore.”