McLaren F1 Production Director, Piers Thynne gives insight into how the Woking team is building what is essentially a new car during a pandemic.
The cars that line up on the grid in Bahrain will be pretty much the same as those that contested the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi just a month ago.
While there are a number of regulation changes, the pandemic has meant that the rules overhaul originally planned for this year has been held over until 2022, while the 2020 cars are carried over into this season.
Except for McLaren that is, for the Woking outfit is switching engine suppliers - from Renault to Mercedes - and that entails a major redesign of the rear end of the car dubbed the MCL35M.
"Whereas every other team will carry over most of its car from last year into this year, our switch to the Mercedes power unit means that's not the case for us," explains . Production Director, Piers Thynne. "It's driven a huge amount of change and, essentially, we've been building a new car.
"The number of new parts on the MCL35M is about the same as when we built the MCL35," he admits.
"The back of the chassis and gearbox bell housing around the engine have changed significantly to adapt to the new power unit.
"Changing power unit greatly alters the architecture of the car and the way everything is packaged, so the entire cooling layout and all the pipework - be that for fluid or air - has changed, along with all electrical harnessing and control boxes."
Asked if anything has been carried over from the MCL35, Thynne admits that the budget cap, which comes into effect this year, has played a part.
"There are some significant elements of carryover as we enter the cost cap," he admits. "The FIA created a list of Transitional Carry Over (TCO) components that are outside of this year's cost cap. These are parts that can be used in 2021 if they were run on last year's car.
"We've pushed these TCO regulations to the absolute maximum to allow us to carry over as much as possible, such as gearbox internals and some suspension components, and therefore not have to use a portion of our 2021 budget on their design and production."
Asked if he is confident the team can continue to make progress despite the new cost constraints, Thynne responds: "F1 has always been about working under a set of constraints, whether it's technical constraints, time constraints or cost constraints. Having said that, the nature of the new cost constraints is quite different to what we've experienced before. It will require a slight change in approach because there's a real trade-off between cost and performance. Yes, you've got to meet the cost cap, but you've got to do it without losing performance.
"You can't just make a cheaper car," he continues. "If you do, you'll make a slower car. You've got to look at the problem holistically to drive efficiencies in all areas but not to the detriment of the car's performance. I don't think you're going to see which teams have really got a handle on this approach until next year because the TCO regulations have skewed the picture for 2021. The real test will come with the design and manufacture of the '22 car."
Of course, this is taking place during a pandemic.
"Covid-19 has had a massive influence on what we've done in the last six to eight months and how we've gone about doing it," admits Thynne. "We were early to the party when it came to defining COVID-safe protocols and working practices because we had to put them in place during the first lockdown so we could manufacture ventilator parts and trolleys as part of the VentilatorChallengeUK project.
"The amount of remote working we do has risen massively and that's meant plenty of video calls. For those members of the production team that work from the McLaren Technology Centre we run split shifts, be that early/late or day/night, so that if we have a covid-19 outbreak the whole production team wouldn't be forced out of action.
"Normally, if you wanted to know something or find out how something was progressing you would just visit the relevant part of the MTC, but you can't do that now - we have to be so strict with where our people go and when. Even though people can't move freely around the MTC, the parts need to. We've sectioned the building into zones and the people in each zone are encouraged, wherever possible, to not go into another zone. For example, someone in machining shouldn't go into composites and vice versa. When parts need to go from one zone to another, they are placed in designated holding areas from where they can be collected - we never have a human-to-human transaction.
"Staying COVID-safe is a huge challenge but everyone in the team has embraced the protocols and knows that they're there to keep us all healthy. No one goes into the MTC unless there's an absolute need, it's been signed off by their manager and director, and they've been tested for covid-19. This has led to using video calls and photographs to allow team members working remotely to understand problems, so they can help find the right solutions."
Of course, F1 is one of the ultimate team sports, so in observing the various COVID protocols in place how does one ensure that everyone still feels they are part of the team.
"Working together in a virtual environment has brought its own challenges," says Thynne. "It's not quite the same as being in the same room as someone and that's why it's so important to encourage engagement and participation from everyone in every virtual meeting. And that means turning cameras on. Who cares if you're still in your pyjamas or whether you've done your hair? I'm not worried about that. It doesn't matter.
"What matters is every member of the team being real - and by that, I mean just being honest and open in what is a really weird time. If you need to answer the door to take delivery of something, that's fine. If home-schooling is proving a nightmare and you're not able to complete a piece of work until later that day, that's fine. That's all real. That's the reality of life right now and people need to feel comfortable saying what they're dealing with and how it might impact their work. Having this level of openness is how we maintain togetherness when physical interaction isn't possible."
Revealing that the MCL35M was homologated in December, Thynne adds: "The homologation of the chassis is always a huge, huge milestone. It's an uneasy and anxious time for lots of people in the team. It reminds me of when my wife gave birth to twins - the only difference is that we have to go through homologation every year! Although, we're the only team that had to do it for this year's car because every other team has carried its 2020 chassis over to 2021. We didn't have this luxury due to the changes made to the chassis to accommodate the switch to the Mercedes power unit.
"There were some challenges, as is the case every year, but good teamwork between manufacturing and design meant the chassis was homologated on time in December. The process didn't really differ but, because of covid-19 restrictions, the FIA couldn't physically be there to witness the crash test. Instead, we had to set up cameras and live links, so they could see all the instrumentation and closely follow every step of the process."