Suicide Contraption - 2003 McLaren Mercedes MP4-18
The 2002 Formula One season ended pretty much way too early as teams couldn’t answer the wrath of Ferrari and especially Michael Schumacher who won the championship at Magny Cours with six rounds left. A lot of teams at that point pretty much gave up on the championship and started to develop their 2003 challenger early in the summer.
McLaren is one of the teams that started the development really early in the summer after being outclassed not only by their bitter rivals the red scarlet Scuderia Ferrari but also to another long time rivals about 13 miles from their headquarters: Williams BMW.
The new MP4-18 is designed by none other than Adrian Newey, the architecture of 6 Constructor Championship cars and bringing 6 Driver’s Championship during his early stint at Williams and now at McLaren. With the car being in development for so long with a huge budget, McLaren was expecting big things from the car with the hope that it could lead them to the top of Formula One again.
The 2003 line up was still the same with youngster Kimi “Iceman” Raikkonen and David “DC” Coulthard again partnering for a second season together after Mika Hakkinen officially announcing his retirement. Thus ending all of the speculations of the Flying Finn return to the sport after yielding his seat to Raikkonen and taking a sabbatical year in 2002.
Experienced Austrian driver Alexander Wurz would do the testings duty for the car while the two main drivers will be having a run with the car after Wurz done some installation running.
With the team aiming for the championship in 2003, pressures were mounting in the team to get the car done in time before Albert Park. Unfortunately, problems with the cars was spotted as the car failed the crash tests twice and forcing the car debut to be delayed further down to the season. It was reported that the sidepods were too fragile and failed during the crash tests.
With the car is not ready in time, the only solution McLaren have was to modified the MP4-17s for the first few races of the season so the MP4-18 could debut later at Austria in May.
The “temporary” replacement to the MP4-18 is a highly modified version of the MP4-17 and called the MP4-17D.
Surprisingly, the MP4-17D performed really well with Coulthard winning at Melbourne with Raikkonen in 3rd. Sepang was the place where the young Finn would claimed his first victory in Formula One and “won” in Brazil before the decision was overturned where Fisichella won and Raikkonen demoted to 2nd.
After scoring another 2nd place at Imola, Raikkonen was in the lead of the championship with 32 points while Coulthard was in 2nd with 19 points. McLaren was also in the lead of the constructor championship with 51 points, 19 in front of Ferrari. Giving McLaren more breathing room to get the MP4-18 ready.
While everything was going to plan, disasters strike as the MP4-18 encounters more problems and was forced to delay the car’s debut further more until the end of the Canadian Grand Prix in June. With Ferrari making huge stripes with their 2003 challenger (the F2003-GA), at the end of the Austrian Grand Prix; the race that “would” have been the car’s original debut. Raikkonen lead was now only 2 points to Michael Schumacher and Ferrari now moving up to the lead of the constructors by a point to the Woking squad.
Finally, after several delays. The car made it debut on the 21st of May at Paul Ricard in France (since in season testings was still permitted). Alexander Wurz drove the car for a three day tests. Problems was spotted with the car’s cooling and balance.
The MP4-18 was a major change from the old MP4-17 with a lot of difference was made mostly for aerodynamics performance of the car. Also reducing its overall weight to allow for more ballast movement. The car was tightly package. For instance the nose of the car is narrower and long, dropping forward to the front wing and nearly touching it, allowing for extremely short front wing supports; working in a similar fashion to mid 90’s nose. This was a relatively new concept for cars at the time with the front wing extends ahead of the nose, thus preventing the shape of the nose influencing the initial flow onto the front wing.
Next is the slim sidepods as to improve aerodynamics efficiency but at a cost of making the cooling of the car a more probable threat. The exhaust layout was also changed and the exhaust pipe endings are again positions inside the diffuser, a concept which potentially creates more downforce than Ferrari’s scooped exhausts, as featured on the Ferrari F2002. However, having the exhaust blow into the diffusers makes rear downforce increase when the driver presses the throttle. This is what everybody wants to improve acceleration, but the problem is that rear downforce also suddenly drops when the driver starts to brake. Ultimately, Newey dropped the design after the first test after reporting problems with cooling and redesign the exhaust higher. This concept was later utilized by Newey nearly a decade later with the revolutionary blown diffuser on the Red Bull cars he would later designed.
McLaren’s mechanic was extremely annoyed with the car complexity design which it was difficult to work with.
The MP4-18 was powered by a V10 Mercedes powered FO110P , which has been lowered within the car, producing centre of gravity benefits. Again, more problems was detected as with the slim sidepods, the Mercedes engine required a lot of cooling and with it causing overheating issues.
Further problems with the car also raised more eyebrows with the new Titanium-Composite gearbox. This is a gearbox casing with carbon fibre bonded together to titanium parts, a particularly difficult thing to do. While this made the gearbox lighter than that in the MP4-17, the bonding could not withstand the higher temperatures inside the car.
The car then headed to Barcelona in June for testings while further delaying the car until the British Grand Prix. Raikkonen, Coulthard finally got a chance to test. During testings, Raikkonen suffered a huge shunt and severely damaged the chassis after something broke while the Finn was through the high speed sections of the circuit.
Things gone from bad to worse as ten days later at Jerez, Wurz also suffered similar fate with him also crashing hard and again badly damaging the chassis, he was taken into the medical center but luckily was fine. But the crash again pushed the car’s debut further with possibility that it might race after the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in mid July.
The damage has been done as now McLaren is now behind both Ferrari and Williams in the standings with the MP4-17D now couldn’t capable to perform on the top level.
After further delays, McLaren sets out one last tests at Austria in August with Wurz did an amazing 330 km run, only to find out later that day that the internal temperature of 120°C engaged de-lamination of the gearbox. Ron Dennis elected not to run the car and therefore developing the car into the MP4-19.
Meanwhile to the end of the season, Raikkonen heroic efforts comes in vain as he lost out to Schumacher by a mere two points in the standings. McLaren also lost out on the constructor crown after leading early in the season only to be outclassed by Ferrari and Williams.
The MP4-18 was deemed as a masterstroke by McLaren and could have been a game changer to the season. Although it was much faster than the MP4-17D. Unfortunately, all of the work come in vain and McLaren lost out on both titles and they have to wait a further 5 years to win a championship. The high expectations, the pressure to win a championship and the car tendency to overheat itself ultimately doomed it. It never race, but will be most remembered as one of the most famous car to never race in the history.
If it raced, what if…? That’s another question for another day.