McLaren’s MP4-X Study Shows What Happens When F1 Engineers Get High

“Formula One has lost the plot” - from people inside the F1 system to racing fans, this is a conclusion we hear more and more often these days. But what if the minds behind the Great Circus were to leave the burden of the rulebook behind and truly go wild, if only for a single project?
McLaren MP4-X 18 photos
Photo: McLaren
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The answer to that question comes from McLaren, whose Applied Technologies arm has envisioned the F1 car of the future, all under the MP4-X name.

Before we go deeper into Woking’s lucid dreams, we must mention that McLaren has to be the perfect F1 team to talk about what could happen in a decade from now. After all, their philosophy is probably the most clinically technical one on the grid.

What's in a name, that which we call an MP4-X?

The idea behind the MP4-X is to offer a melange between the speed and thrills offered by Grand Prix events, measures aimed at increasing driver safety and technologies racing drivers of today can only dream of. Basically, these are McLaren’s engineers and designers getting high on what they do best.

The first elements that strike you when beholding the MP4-X are the closed cockpit and the low-profile tires. Nothing new so far (take a look at Le Mans racers and you’ll understand).

However, zooming in on the features mentioned above reveals the tip of this racing iceberg. The protective canopy is hydrophobic and photochromatic. So while spectators can see the driver battling for lap times when the weather is mild, the man (or, why not, the woman) behind the wheel will enjoy superb visibility when the sun decides to strike.

At first, you might be tempted to vote against closed cockpits. But take the time to think about how we lost F1 drivers like Senna or Justin Wilson (his death did occur during the IndyCar part of his career, but the point still stands): they were hit by flying debris.

In terms of visibility, the British specialists talk about a network of cameras and a special helmet that would allow the driver to have a 360-degree vision. Aside from sounding cool and bringing F1 drivers closer to jet fighter pilots, this would lead to a new kind of overtaking situations. “Push him out” situations (please excuse the DTM reference) would have a different face, wouldn’t they?

When it comes to the tires, the rubber seen here is not just prettier but also smarter compared to F1 cars of today. That comes thanks to a feature called real-time pressure predictive analysis, which would deliver blowout warnings.

Much of McLaren’s futuristic racecar is built around the driver. For instance, the vehicle was designed to analyze the brain waves of the human inside it. Mclaren hasn’t gone as far as envisioning a driver who sits inside the car with his arms crossed and steers using his mind. That would be rather unrealistic. Instead, this racing machine could allow the driver to control certain secondary systems using the power of thought.

For one thing, drivers usually communicate with their teams on the straights, as bends keep them busy. With tech goodies such as the one described above, the team could be aware of the driver’s thoughts without this distracting him. Hopefully, science can help us develop a filter. You know, for those moments when you wouldn’t want to share your opinion on your teammate with the entire stuff. Just saying.

McLaren has worked together with farmaceutical giant GSK to understand neurological diseases such as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), so its efforts in the field go way beyond the proposals mentioned above.

Following the mens sana in corpore sano principle, the body of the driver is also targeted by the innovations discussed here. McLaren proposes racing apparel that includes bio sensors, which could point to the areas of impact trauma, helping medical personnel in the event of a crash.

The MP4-X itself could be more protective than today’s F1 racers. Negative-stiffness materials would help the car come closer to its original shape after an impact, thus being ready to play the shield role in the event of a second or a third hit. Even though we’re (sadly) not all F1 drivers, most of us have seen those frightening moments when a Formula One car’s nose turns to carbon dust after an impact, leaving things naked in the event of a second hit.

McLaren Applied Technologies is already involved in North Sea drilling operations that include monitoring a structure’s condition remotely, so the first step towards elements that rebuild themselves after an impact has already been taken.

With F1’s increasing eco-conscious nature, McLaren has paid a great deal of attention to the energy paths within the car. For instance, the smart pressure sensors mentioned above would power themselves, while an onboard pressure regulator would make constant adjustments to ensure the optimal traction is always there.

McLaren has dreamt about this together with Pirelli (don’t ask about where they spent the night, though). As racing fans know, the tire maker has been criticized over frequent failures during the 2015 season, so it’s easy to imagine why they’re making efforts to deal with delamination.

The illegal stuff is always good fun

Since FIA has now influence over this virtual world, McLaren went ahead and introduced a series of features that are currently banned in F1.

We’ll start with the active aerodynamics and we’re talking about more than wings that change their shape here. While not a new development, Active Flow Control would see electrodes being inserted into the surface of the wings. Thus, the aerodynamic load would only be accessed through the bends, while the car could run free on the straights. With the electrons being turned on, the air flowing over the wings would be turned into plasma, having a dramatic effect on the downforce.

Still, the illegal nature of the system is not the only thing standing in the way of its implementation. For one thing, such a system would require a tremendous amount of power, with McLaren proposing using part of the engine’s power for this.

This area of research would also allow McLaren to improve the cars we can drive on the road. Adaptive shape-memory alloys are an example of a technology that could... flow from the MP4-X to a future streetcar. In other words, your wing could be as adaptive as yourself, depending on whether you’re on the highway or on the track.

The money-making side of F1 is also covered by the project, with the Brits talking about digital panels that replace the current stickers. That would allow targeted ads, which would cater to the specific audience of a race.

Would that prevent stuff like Dickbutt showing up on Ferrari’s F1 car? Probably not, but once the technology advances enough to keep the weight of the panels down, such a development can’t hurt anybody.

Then there’s the mother of all banned F1 tech - ground effect. While this has been ousted back in 1982, McLaren talks about how the packaging benefits of a hybrid powerplant would allow for much greater freedom in the floor area. Massive Venturi tunnels would bring massively entertaining cornering speeds.

The British company talks about the electron play. For instance, inductive coupling built into the track could provide additional recharging. While not mentioning the word “downsizing,” McLaren talks about how a “new approach to the internal combustion engine” would bring that packaging mentioned above.

Still, it’s nice to notice how McLaren envisions such a long-term F1 future with Honda (check out the car and you’ll understand).

It’s no secret that EVs and hybrids are held back by the lack of advances in battery technology. The MP4-X would pack thin batteries that would be integrated into the vehicle structure rather than conventional battery packs that concentrate weight in certain areas.

Such a development couldn’t have missed the solar cell opportunity, so this is also on the menu. We can imagine the drivers fearing nightfall in Abu Dhabi and Singapore.

What happens once we all wake up from this dream?

Since you’re not reading this article on the Deep Web, don’t expect any priceless secrets to be revealed by McLaren. While they are keeping that kind of developments for the machines they’ll actually build, it’s still nice to know these technological discipline-obsessed Brits have a dreamy side.

We do have one question though and it all has to do with the less than satisfying voices of the current 1.6-liter turbo engines - does McLaren’s dream have a soundtrack? And we’re referring to something aside the otherwise cool dubstep beats in the clip below.

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About the author: Andrei Tutu
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In his quest to bring you the most impressive automotive creations, Andrei relies on learning as a superpower. There's quite a bit of room in the garage that is this aficionado's heart, so factory-condition classics and widebody contraptions with turbos poking through the hood can peacefully coexist.
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