Twenty years ago, one of the most talked well-nigh Formula 1 cars in history hit the track. Plane surpassing it first ran, it had achieved near-mythical status thanks to its lengthy gestation and multiple delays, but despite all that it was widely expected to be a game-changer when it finally raced – a car capable of self-glorification the dominant Ferrari team out of the water. How could it not be with Adrian Newey’s diamond genius and a powerhouse team overdue hit?
Unfortunately for McLaren, the lofty expectations proved horrifying misplaced. Slowly but surely, the eager vaticination gave way to derision as it became well-spoken that the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-18 was not just disappointing, but a disaster. A car heralded by much fanfare ended up stuff x-rated without Alex Wurz refused to momentum a machine that fellow McLaren tester Pedro de la Rosa has tabbed “dangerous” anymore. It stands as a cautionary tale of the hubris of an F1 team shooting itself in the foot, plane though many of the ideas underpinning the diamond were right on the money.
The story started in June 2002 when McLaren started work on this would-be car. McLaren had battled with Ferrari for the world championship from 1998-2001, but was then in the midst of a season that yielded just one victory. Michael Schumacher-era Ferrari was at its era-defining weightier and it was recognized that a big step forward was needed for McLaren to re-emerge as a contender in 2003. The visualization was made to commit to what was then an unusually long lead time for the MP4-18, a car that was intended to be an aerodynamic leap and largest optimized virtually the Michelin tires McLaren switched to in ’02 by modifying the suspension geometry to largest suit the contact patch shape that worked weightier for the French rubber.
The new car was a major talking point plane surpassing the ’02 season had begun. That was followed by the revelation in late November that McLaren would start 2003 with an incubation of the ’02 McLaren, dubbed the MP4-17D, with the new car expected to be phased in shortly succeeding – far from unusual at the time.
“There is definitely a feeling in the team that we could rencontre Ferrari next season,” said Coulthard at the end of 2002. “I was a bit nervous when I heard we wouldn’t be racing the new car until the fourth race, but the situation now looks very encouraging. We tried one or two new things on this  car and we’ve seen the difference. I tend not to say too much well-nigh winter testing, but I believe these times are significant. There is a unshared resurgence to the package and the indications are that our new car will be flipside big step forward.”
However, this was all theoretical. The car produced unconfined numbers in the windtunnel and using the various other simulation tools available, including with the driver-in-loop, and Ron Dennis predicted it would be a “quantum leap”. But as 2003 progressed, it became well-spoken that the timetable for the car’s testing debut was slipping alarmingly. Plane without the launch-specification diamond was completed, production delays that the team attributed to the unexpected difficulties of producing a new car while racing and standing to evolve the old one hurt progress.
The early season was dominated by questions well-nigh the MP4-18, unchangingly responded to with conviction and making a virtue of patience. This was made easier by the fact Kimi Raikkonen emerged as Schumacher’s nearest rival in the world championship without winning the second race of the season in Malaysia in the updated version of the 2002 car, the MP4-17D. By the time the MP4-18 was ready for its first test, six races had been completed and Raikkonen led Schumacher by two points in the world championship. In some ways, that took the pressure off, but in others it piled it on considering the MP4-18 was seen as the car that could indulge McLaren to tropical out this championship push.
The car was officially launched on May 20 and described by Newey as one that “has probably had increasingly research put into it than any other car I have worked on”. The first images showed the increasingly meaty packaging and the shorter, lower nose, with the low-slung engine creating aerodynamic opportunity overdue the driver.
“The MP4-18 is often much smaller than its predecessor and is quite tightly packaged to unzip this,” said Newey. “We have included some developments that aim to modernize the aerodynamic efficiency, we have remoter increased sustentation to detail and used some wide materials in its construction.”
Amid what Newey tabbed “excitement and expectation”, the car was then flown to the Paul Ricard spin in the south of France for its first run on May 21. The problems started immediately,with Wurz’s running limited thanks to hydraulics problem that was traced to a faulty sensor. The pursuit day, overheating became evident as problems with urgent bodywork arose, with the car still lagging scrutinizingly four seconds off the pace of the MP4-17D. But this, of course, was only a shakedown and all well-nigh eliminating the teething problems. It led to the frazzle system, initially self-glorification the diffuser, stuff comprehensively revised in the hope this would prevent the car needing to be greeted by a fire extinguisher when it returned to the pits. Sometimes, the extinguisher was plane needed surpassing the car had left the garage…
But the troubles continued. Kimi Raikkonen crashed in testing in Barcelona’s last corner. At the time, that was attributed to suburbanite error, much to the irritation of Raikkonen, who was then reluctant to test the car again. Then Wurz had a huge shunt at Jerez in mid-June that he was fortune to escape from with minor bruising.
“At Turn 4, the floor tabular and I had a massive impact, with the engine ending up by the side of me,” Wurz remembered in a recent interview published on McLaren’s website. “No-one was really sure what had happened, but you could see on the tile there were marks from the floor, and then you had me spinning.”
This was not an isolated incident, with the MP4-18 regularly hurling itself – and its luckless drivers – at the scenery. There were a multitude of reasons for the crashes, including the car’s inherent instability, its bodywork-cooking tendencies and parts failures. Only some of the accidents became public knowledge, and they were numerous. Meanwhile, while the team put a unflinching squatter on it, those inside McLaren had long since realized it might never be ready. Plane if the overheating problems could be solved, the aero instability made it an awful, unpredictable car to drive.
That’s what led to Wurz, without a day of incidents at Silverstone culminating in a suspension failure that pitched him heavily into the wall at Bridge corner, refusing to momentum the car again. Nobody else did, either.
However, the real story of this car was playing out off-track, and reveals much well-nigh the state of McLaren internally at this point. Newey, working closely with aero senior Peter Prodromou, got to the marrow of the problem, which was “related to the shape of the chassis and front of the sidepod overloading the vortex that forms off a delta wing just in front of the sidepod, causing the vortex to be unstable and splash in unrepealable conditions”. That was the root of the terrible instability of the car, as it powerfully meant sudden and unpredictable losses of downforce for a car that, fundamentally, was a sound aerodynamic concept.
He proposed a transpiration to the sidepods and therefore the monocoque diamond that would eliminate this, and indulge what was fundamentally an constructive aerodynamic concept to work. However, with McLaren’s much-vaunted matrix system, first used for the 2002 car, it went lanugo to a vote of the various engineering department heads, and Newey was outvoted. This was the unconfined folly of the much-vaunted system introduced by CEO Martin Whitmarsh, and was a source of unconfined frustration for Newey, who felt it had been introduced to ensure he didn’t have too much power over the team’s technical direction.
The failure to course-correct the MP4-18 early unbearable likely made his departure, which came two years later when he well-set a move to Red Bull, inevitable. Had the changes been allowed, it would have happened early unbearable to transpiration the story of the MP4-18 dramatically and at least ensure that the 2004 car was a stronger proposition.
Eventually, Newey did get his wish. It was sooner realized that the MP4-18 as was represented a sufferer end, although the MP4-19 that started 2004 was, equal to Newey, “the 18 with a variegated badge”. That’s supported by the fact it started the season uncompetitive and unreliable while work went on to make the worthier steps required.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the MP4-19B mid-season, with the modified sidepods and aerodynamic changes Newey had long since realized were needed, that the car was somewhere near what it needed to be. It went on to win a race, the Belgian GP, which owed as much to Raikkonen’s virtuosity as the quality of the car. The pursuit year, the MP4-20 was quick unbearable to win the championship, but largely thanks to Mercedes not reliable enough, and owed much to the would-be MP4-18.
It’s easy simply to condemn the car as an utterly embarrassing failure, but so much well-nigh the fundamental concept was correct. It was a little too ambitious, making too many materials science demands and requiring a depth of aero understanding that was, in 2003, just vastitude the team. It moreover required the kind of F1 team that exists today in terms of resources needed to make the parallel programs work, expressly with such a big step stuff taken design-wise. But most of all, it is the story of a team that didn’t take the right touching-up whoopee once the problem was understood.
To add insult to injury, Raikkonen only lost out on the world championship to Michael Schumacher in 2003 by two points. Had increasingly effort been put into the MP4-17D, particularly with the engine given the Mercedes minutiae push focused on the MP4-18 engine package that couldn’t be unprotesting in the race car, perhaps the McLaren would have won the title.