Will Gray

Tech Talk: Launch season’s changed focus

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The days of launching a new car with a circus act or a star-studded rock concert and long gone – so with most teams now focused on simply hitting the track running what’s it take to get it right on roll-out?

In the big money days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the money and time spent on lavish and opulent car launch displays was, quite frankly ridiculous (albeit extremely enjoyable for those invited to attend!). Each team tried to outdo the other, with perhaps the most spectacular efforts coming from McLaren, who rolled in the Spice Girls on one occasion, and Jordan, who lowered their car from the ceiling of the Albert Hall as part of a 30-minute performance by Cirque du Soleil.

This year, the first launch – by Lotus – was simply broadcast over the internet on Monday. McLaren will then reveal their car on Thursday, Ferrari, Force India and Sauber over the weekend, Red Bull next Monday and Mercedes and Toro Rosso the day before the first test.

In what is perhaps the most condensed period of car launches ever, only Williams will delay their unveiling, rolling out just in time for second test on February 19.

To hit those launch day targets, the meticulous planning started many, many months ago.

Just like any critical path business, teams have a timeline for design and development – but in this case it has both moving and fixed lines.

Items like the chassis, which must be homologated and cannot be changed during the season, are a useful pinpoint in the calendar. Their design completion must be planned to allow for full construction in time for crash tests to be performed and passed, with contingency for failure.

Teams try to develop their designs to have the structure to pass the tests but still be as low weight as possible – and it’s a fine balance between getting it right and having a costly delay that can cost a team weeks of crucial build and development time.

The chassis is usually completed some time before Christmas and the car is then built along a central spine – the Sauber cut-away video released last year demonstrated this exceptionally well.

Teams will build the core of the car starting with chassis and gearbox and moving on to fuel systems and wiring before adding the bolt-on parts like floors, sidepods, wings and suspension right at the end of the process.

And it is mostly those bolt-on parts that are the moving part of the timeline – as they can be changed multiple times between the launch version and the car used in the first race.

Sidepod designs used to be fixed for a season but modern design and manufacturing mean they can now be changed far more often, as can the floors and diffusers (which are produced together as one piece) while smaller parts can be changed week-in, week-out.

And as there is such a limited amount of opportunity for testing during the season, failing to launch the new car before the first test can result in a major loss in development.

The old lavish launches were always a pain for the technical teams as while it was satisfying to see their new machines being swooned over by the world’s media, the engineers were always champing at the bit to get the car out of the theatre and onto the test track.

There was once a plan to get all the teams together for a group launch to give them all the chance to be part of a spectacular show on a more reasonable budget. Originally mooted for Valencia – so teams could go straight into testing – it would have given F1 the chance to have a focused launch day for each new season but it never happened because the timing was hard to agree.

Instead, after a series of relatively fanfare-free unveilings, the fireworks will now begin on the first day of testing.