McLaren: From F1 to a formula for Winter Olympic gold

Story highlights

  • McLaren Applied Technologies working with GB team in quest for Sochi medals
  • Major targets for MAT are in skeleton and bobsleigh with a crack unit of engineers
  • MAT enjoyed success at London 2012 with canoeing, cycling, rowing and sailing
  • Project leader helped create F1 simulator used by McLaren's drivers

If 2013 was an "annus horribilis" for McLaren, then next year provides a double chance of redemption for the motorsport giant -- and Russia will play a key role.

By the time Sochi hosts the country's first Formula One race next October, McLaren bosses will know if the team has been able to bounce back from one of its worst seasons in more than two decades, with major technological changes required due to the sport's new engine rules for 2014.

But well before then, the British manufacturer's innovations will have been put to the test at the same seaside resort, as Russia hosts its first Winter Olympics.

McLaren is working with the UK team -- specifically skeleton and bobsleigh -- via its applied technologies operation MAT in a bid to help improve GB's medal chances in February.

"It's similar work to what we did with the Summer Olympics, concentrating on sports with a greater chance of medals," says MAT project manager Caroline Hargrove, who used to work for the McLaren F1 team and created the race simulator which drivers such as Jenson Button use away from grand prix weekends.

A helping hand from Ferrari
A helping hand from Ferrari


    A helping hand from Ferrari


A helping hand from Ferrari 03:16
Sochi 2014: The torch begins its journey
Sochi 2014: The torch begins its journey


    Sochi 2014: The torch begins its journey


Sochi 2014: The torch begins its journey 03:04
Sochi's Olympic challenges one year out
Sochi's Olympic challenges one year out


    Sochi's Olympic challenges one year out


Sochi's Olympic challenges one year out 02:50

For a team so synonymous with success -- 182 grand prix victories, eight constructors' titles and 12 drivers' championships -- this year has been an undoubtedly unwanted blot on McLaren's copybook.

Button and Sergio Perez -- who has since been replaced by rookie Kevin Magnussen -- were ninth and 11th respectively in the drivers' standings, with the team a lowly fifth in the constructors' table, more than 450 points behind dominant Red Bull.

But McLaren has previous success at the Olympics, with Team GB winning 30 of its 65 medals at London 2012 in sports with which MAT was involved: canoeing, cycling, rowing and sailing. Half of those were gold.

It is a model that clearly works -- MAT also worked with skeleton racer Amy Williams to a lesser degree on her path to Olympic skeleton success at the last Winter Games in Vancouver -- and there is a sense of excitement of another medal haul at Sochi.

Brought in by the government-funded agency UK Sport, MAT will focus on the downhill sledding disciplines.

"What we've done for the other sports, it's more generic in that we've done a little bit and still do a few programs with UK Sport, and we ran workshops recently with all the coaches for inspiration looking at other sports," Hargrove told CNN.

"In our case, we showed the side of Formula One, and the equipment and technical side of it."

The work done by MAT varies from use of its dynamic chassis rig -- also known as the shaker rig -- which is used on the development of F1 cars and now skeletons and bobsleds to run the rule over their respective suspensions.

Sochi Games: Need help with Russian?
Sochi Games: Need help with Russian?


    Sochi Games: Need help with Russian?


Sochi Games: Need help with Russian? 02:08

Its technology is used to make both the equipment and the kit worn by British athletes, but also in data analysis and how the human body reacts to the skeleton and bobs in question. However, in order to keep an edge on rival teams, the specifics are kept closely guarded.

There are also strict rules which restrain MAT's area of operations.

"We don't have enormous margins for imagination," Hargrove says. "They prescribe the type of steel and where rubber can be used -- and that's hardly anywhere. But like in F1, we are able to use attention to detail to make things as near to perfect and that we assemble things as well as we can."

The bobsleighs are being tested in France to measure the gains that have been made.

"We can see a tangible time difference that we have made with the bobsleigh," Hargroves adds. "Our measurements are by the millisecond."

The Olympic projects are relatively small scale compared to MAT's other business strands, which span from pharmaceutical trials to working with the behemoths of oil and gas.

A solitary MAT engineer is working fulltime on each of the skeleton and bobsleigh projects, even testing the equipment themselves on the ice at high speed -- true workplace immersion.

Read: Ferrari ... on ice

At Sochi, MAT will be in direct competition with McLaren's traditional F1 foe Ferrari, which has been working with the Italian Olympic team -- in particular with the bobsleigh.

"There's definitely a little bit of rivalry with Ferrari in this," says Hargrove. "You always want competition, it helps to push you on."

For Hargrove, who was brought up in Montreal, Canada, with a love of winter sports, this project is a perfect fit. And she sees the love of sport as being a key ingredient to her team's success.

"When I interview people for jobs, one of my questions is are they sports fans," she says. "Sports fans tend to be inherently competitive and that is good for this working environment. It also means if and when you employ them you can bear them in mind for future sporting projects."

For all MAT's collective brainpower and tech nous, however, she acknowledges that there is only so much they can do for the competitors.

"It's all about the athletes," she points out. "If an athlete gets injured, there is nothing the kit will do without the athlete. But we hope to support what we believe is very real potential for medals.

"It's great working with people that are so driven, especially the coaches who don't see much of the limelight."

Read: Dr. Ice's quest for Sochi glory

UK Sport covers MAT's expenses and time costs -- though otherwise the work is done on a non-profit basis -- and has given open access to its data.

However, not all the athletes are 100% compliant. Kristan Bromley, who runs his own skeleton-making business, is understandably loathe to share details of his intellectual property so he and his partner Shelley Rudman will be without MAT's backing in terms of their equipment.

World's longest indoor ski tunnel
World's longest indoor ski tunnel


    World's longest indoor ski tunnel


World's longest indoor ski tunnel 04:48
Will Sochi be the most connected Games?
Will Sochi be the most connected Games?


    Will Sochi be the most connected Games?


Will Sochi be the most connected Games? 04:16

"That said, Kristan has still worked with us on other aspects," adds Hargrove.

In addition, there have been skeptics of what is, on the surface, an alternative approach to the Winter Olympics, and Hargrove relishes that.

"The thing is that we don't have all the solutions," she says. "But by doing this it generally brings in more lateral thinking to the discussions."

Research from Infostrada has suggested that Great Britain is set for its most successful Winter Olympics, with a predicted five medals. Should that be the case, that will be in now small part down to MAT, and the world of F1.

Read: The free spirit of freestyle skiing

Read: Skeleton racer - 'I had to stop breaking my body'

      Aiming for Gold

    • intv davies sochi iconic olympic images_00022301.jpg

      Sochi 2014: The verdict

      With the Olympic cauldron now extinguished, CNN takes a look at whether Russia's $50 billion Sochi budget was money well spent.
    • Canada's Sidney Crosby scores past Sweden's goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist during the ice hockey final at the Bolshoy Ice Dome during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 23, 2014.

      Sochi's top-10 sporting moments

      The athletes on show in Sochi provided moments of drama and destiny that captured the imagination and settled in the collective memory.
    • Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen competes in the Men's Biathlon 15 km Mass Start at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014, in Rosa Khutor, near Sochi. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

      Here's Sochi's real winner

      Russia may have topped the medals table at the first Winter Olympics it staged, but which country was most successful per capita?
    • SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 08: Katie Uhlaender of the United States shows a bald eagle design on her helmet as she prepares to make a run during a Women's Skeleton training session on Day 1 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

      Sochi: The coolest gear on show

      From eye-popping helmet designs to F1-influenced bobsleigh, the Sochi offered a bewildering array of technological innovation.
    • Fireworks explode over the Olympic park at the end of the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 23.

      Sochi's artistic ending

      Sochi's closing ceremony took an artistic look at Russian culture before the Olympic flag was handed over to South Korea for the 2018 Games.
    • The world's most expensive road?

      Critics say it would have been cheaper to coat this Russian road with caviar but will the route made for Sochi reap long-term rewards?
    • Tomas Portyk of the Czech Republic jumps during the Nordic Combined Individual Large Hill official training on day 10 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center on February 17, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

      360-view of Sochi ski jump

      Navigate your way around this spectacular 360-degree picture from Sochi's ski-jumping venue at the Winter Olympics -- and find out how it was created.
    • 'Come vacation in Sochi ... please!'

      Sochi's transformation has left even the local cab drivers a bit lost and confused -- but don't let that put you off visiting this rejuvenated Black Sea resort.
    • March of Sochi's sun athletes

      For a Winter Olympics, there are some very colorful characters from some very tropical climates taking part -- including this "Mariachi" skier.
    • Gold medalist Jamie Anderson of the United States and bronze medalist Jenny Jones of Great Britain celebrate during the flower ceremony for the Women's Snowboard Slopestyle Finals during day two of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 9, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

      The Olympics is their playground

      If snowboarders were an introduction to a younger, hipper, "slacker" generation of Olympians, the next wave has taken it to another level.
    • A prop from the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

      Sochi: Russia's paradise lost?

      It has been dubbed Russia's Las Vegas. But has Sochi's massive renovation come at a cost to the region's stunning natural environment?