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McLaren Spins Up its New Wind Tunnel

An upgrade to the test section of McLaren’s own wind tunnel frees the team from using Toyota’s wind tunnel.

Dan Carney

October 4, 2023

5 Min Read
McLaren 2023 Side-Final-2.jpg
The 2023 McLaren F1 car in profile, as it would look from the control room of the company's new wind tunnel.McLaren Racing

Legendary Formula 1 team McLaren has been in the unenviable position of relying on another team’s wind tunnel for testing models of its race cars since 2010 but has finally opened its own on-site tunnel, following years of work.

“Re-opening” its own tunnel would be the correct phrasing, as McLaren included a new wind tunnel when it opened its glitzy Norman Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre headquarters in Woking, UK in 2003. Foster also designed Apple’s headquarters, Apple Park.

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But just seven years later, the team took the opportunity to switch to the wind tunnel at Toyota Gazoo Racing-Europe in Cologne, Germany, because of shortcomings in its own practically new tunnel. Toyota had exited F1 at the time, shifting its focus to rallying and endurance sports cars for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, so it was no longer a Formula 1 rival.

The Toyota tunnel is good, but it is 25 years old now. It is a 50 percent scale tunnel, and F1 rules permit teams to use models as large as 60 percent, so McLaren isn’t getting the highest-fidelity testing that is permissible. Full-scale tunnels are prohibited in an effort to contain spiraling team costs.

Obviously, a proud team like McLaren wants to use its own on-site facility rather than depend on one that is in another country, with all of the associated logistical expenses and hassles that securely shipping half-size race car models 388 miles to a facility in another country entails.

This is why McLaren launched an effort to refresh its own tunnel in 2019. Then-technical director James Key explained McLaren’s motivation to Formula 1’s fan website that same year. “We’ve had a great relationship with Toyota over the last 10 years the team’s been with them, still providing us with a very good service, but the fact is that tunnel is aging now compared to the state-of-the-art ones in many Formula 1 teams and the technology that is in a modern F1 wind tunnel is outstanding – it’s one of those little secrets that gets hidden away.”

“But if you ever get to see one and see what’s going on, there’s a huge amount of technology and interesting techniques and methodologies surrounding the way you now wind tunnel test in a wind tunnel,” Key continued.

A cutting-edge tunnel is crucial because even the best computational fluid dynamics modeling struggles with details that are important to F1 cars’ performance. “CFD and wind tunnels complement each other very well, particularly in motor racing when you’ve got a very chaotic situation surrounding our very transient thing,” Key said.

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Reusing the space where the previous tunnel was presented challenges familiar to anyone who has endured a home renovation. “Demolition involved breaking down the old steelwork into much smaller pieces so that it would fit through the doors and out of the building,” recalled engineering project manager Hannah Allan in a McLaren post to the company’s website. “Looking at the empty space where the old test section once stood, we thought ‘There is no going back now!’”

The new parts also needed to break down so they would fit through the existing building for installation. “Due to the space restrictions, the tunnel is as high and as wide as it can possibly be,” explained Christian Schramm, Director of R&D and Technology. “That meant that our designs had to be very specific, which is more time-consuming. For example, the rolling road within the test section is as wide as the door it was delivered through – that was one of our considerations.”

While the entire test section of the new tunnel is new, the old tunnel’s fan and external steelwork structure were retained.

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The tunnel’s new test section is now big enough to contain 60 percent scale models of the team’s cars and it incorporates a rolling road platform for accurately modeling under-body aerodynamics and ground effects. The previous tunnel was not only a 50 percent tunnel, but F1 regulations had since made the cars much larger, so models that would fit in the tunnel had to be smaller than 50 percent.

“This makes a big difference,” says Alan Stovold, Senior Manager of R&D Facilities. “If a part of the model car is too close to the walls, you are messing up the airflow, and therefore your data is incorrect.” The team says that the car’s aerodynamics in cornering will be able to be modeled with better accuracy because as the model is turned to introduce yaw to simulate cornering, airflow over the model will be less affected by proximity to wind tunnel walls that are now farther away.

Formula 1 rules limit both wind tunnel use and CFD time in a bid to boost weaker teams and slow the dominant teams, which means that the available wind tunnel time needs to provide the maximum possible benefit. The top team in last year’s results, in this case Red Bull, is limited to 70 percent of the baseline maximum of 40 wind tunnel runs per week, or 28 runs.

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Bottom-ranked teams get 115 percent of the baseline, permitting them 46 runs per week. In theory, this should begin to boost the fortunes of the bottom teams while restraining progress at the leading teams. McLaren calls the switch to its own newly upgraded tunnel “an important step in the evolution of McLaren Racing and the acceleration of our 2024 car design.” Time will tell how beneficial the new tool proves to be.

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