McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh expects his team's rivals to stop their complaints and instead start copying the radical "venting" system that features on his car after it passed an FIA inspection and scrutineering for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
After intense intrigue in the Bahrain paddock ahead of the first race of the season about the unique concepts that McLaren has fitted to its car, Whitmarsh all but confirmed for the first time that his outfit was utilizing an ingenious air duct through the cockpit.
Although the exact workings of the system are not known, and Whitmarsh dryly suggested the car's airflow system was for "cooling the driver," a clearer picture of what McLaren has done emerged over the course of the day as teams took a direct interest in the system. It is suggested that air flows into the cockpit via a chimney, believed to be known inside the team as the "F-vent," on the nose. The air is then channeled through the car and out of the rear end.
The air tunnel is believed, however, to have a hole in it that the drivers are able to block on the straights – using either their knees or elbows. When this hole is covered, the air pressure inside the vent is changed – and this helps stall the rear wing. This design, allied to small slots in the rear-wing's upper plane that were the original focus of complaints from other teams, helps stall the wing at high speed – reducing drag and helping produce up to six miles per hour of extra straight-line speed.
Although some teams privately believe that using the driver to influence the aerodynamics of the car in such a way is illegal, the FIA has given the McLaren the all-clear. Whitmarsh said he doubted any rivals would consider protesting his team, and felt they would now simply embark on trying to copy what his team had done instead.
"People will look at what we have got on our car and I would imagine that most teams are now looking for how they would implement such a system," he told AUTOSPORT. "I think there was a 'What is it?' question initially, then there was, 'It can't be legal.' Now people are starting to understand it, there is, 'How quickly can we implement it?' Most people are saying that it is something quite ingenious. This was a very creative and ingenious individual in our company who came up with the idea and we've developed it."
When asked if he had fears of a protest, Whitmarsh said: "From what I understand, there are no grounds for a protest. I don't think everyone yet understands the nature of the systems that are on our car. So if they put a protest in, it would potentially be on a wrong set of assumptions as to what we've got. So we will see."
McLaren's chances of holding onto the advantage it has got from the vent concept is boosted by the fact that teams this year have to homologate their chassis tubs – which means implementing the vent will not be easy. Despite the homologation process, Whitmarsh still felt there was plenty of opportunity for rivals to introduce their own systems.
"If you are picking up on the inlet system, then I would imagine that for access reasons, firstly your nose box is approved and you'd have to re-test it if you wanted to put ducting through your nose, which you could do," he explained. "But I'd also imagine that for access even just for pedal changes and various things in the front of the monocoque, ordinarily there are access panels that would give you the facility to put ducts in. I'm guessing, because I haven't looked. If you look on our car, there are a number of access panels that are in the homologated chassis and also the monocoque is homologated. You can change the nose."
He then added, in a reference to the fact that his team can claim the hole in the vent is simply to help driver comfort rather than for aerodynamic purposes: "If they wanted to increase the cooling to the driver, then they'd have to do that via an access hole that exists in the monocoque or through the nose."
Although the situation gives McLaren a huge advantage over its rivals, especially with no teams having managed to copy it so far, Whitmarsh played down the impact. When asked if he felt a bit smug about what had happened, he said: "I think I'll be smug – if that's the right expression – in Abu Dhabi if we win the championship. But I'm not going to be smug just yet. It's very difficult.
"We appear to be competitive, but we're not complacent and it's certainly too early to be smug at the moment. We're here to win some races and then win a championship. Until we've done that, no one in the team is going to feel happy with what has happened."