Do McLaren have the edge?

64e0e677-69ce-465e-bedc-e6dc181f05caThe gloves are off. BMW Sauber may well be sitting quietly ready to topple the lot of them, but all eyes were on McLaren and Ferrari this week as the two powerhouses took the wraps of their 2009 cars and hit the track running for the first time, ushering in a new era of Formula One in the process.

They might not have been sharing the same track space, with Ferrari abandoning the pre-season test in Portimao in favour of Mugello due to the poor weather, but that did little to stop an epic head-to-head unfolding as every inch of the teams’ cars were scrutinised and every move analysed.

Ferrari by all accounts are playing catch-up having lost ground to their Woking rivals in the arms race to develop their KERS technology.

And it showed. When the cloths finally came off McLaren’s MP4-24 looked in every way like the finished article when held up against Ferrari’s F60. Ominously so given that it is actually anything but, with extensive development and upgrades planned between now and the season-opener in Melbourne at the end of March.

Head to Head: McLaren MP4-24 vs. Ferrari F60

2009 Ferrari F60 7

“I’d say that in every area the McLaren is finely detailed,” commented former Arrows and Stewart designer Alan Jenkins in this month’s F1 Racing magazine. “It looks more polished and ‘finished’ than the Ferrari, but both are very good cars.”

Take the rear end of the cars, where new aerodynamic regulations – designed to reduce downforce and improve overtaking – have had a massive impact on design, bringing the diffuser and core components rearwards and yielding a generally higher and shorter rear wing.

McLaren’s rear wing is altogether more sculpted: “The endplace is an evolution of last year’s,” explains Jenkins. “With the edge sculpted into the flaps, it’s a real work of art. It will help with controlling the airflow off the rear wing, and is much more extreme than the Ferrari endplate.”

With the diffuser shifting rearwards, Ferrari’s decision to leave its exhaust tailpipe almost hanging off the car also smacks of incompleteness. McLaren’s exhaust is better integrated. “The have incorporated it into the bodywork – it looks pretty,” adds Jenkins. “I doubt it’s to direct gases onto the rear wing, as they’ll be variable, but it’s a clean finish. Ferrari have left the tailpipe standing in the airflow.

Towards the front end and again McLaren have devised a much more sculpted front-wing, albeit adopting a traditional three wing flap. Ferrari’s front wing is a more complicated affair with additional vanes on the outer edges to direct airflow around the side of the wheels.

“I really like McLaren’s front wing, it’s quite beautiful,” comments Jenkins. “But it’s a conventional three-wing flap with a simple endplate. The Ferrari is more complex, with a turning vane on the outside – maybe to control airflow around the slicks.”

But its one up to Ferrari as far as its interpretation of the wing mirrors are concerned. “One of the biggest difference between the cars is one of the saddest,” says Jenkins. “The rules were designed to get rid of turning vanes, but Ferrari have this ingenious device that they’ve put their wing mirrors on to tidy the airflow over the car.”

With a ban on in-season testing coming into force at the end of March the next few months will be crucial for both teams as they put their cars through an extensive development programme ahead of Melbourne.

McLaren may have taken an early lead in the arms race, but there is no reason to think that Ferrari cannot close the gap. Let’s not forget too just how important reliability will be in the context of sweeping new regulations and the inevitable teething issues that will come with KERS. And on that front Ferrari seem to be fairing well with the team notching up 2,000kms of testing in Mugello with little in the way of mechanical glitches.

“We ve done around 1,700 kms in four days, practically without problems, while most of the times in the past after 250 kms something would come up,” Felipe Massa confirmed to Italian newspaper Gazzeta dello Sport .