McLaren’s new front wing and a “ripe for development” floor introduced at the Spanish Grand Prix are only the “first round” of major updates, says technical director James Key.
The team has started the 2021 Formula 1 season in strong form and is third in the constructors’ championship after three races, the same position it finished in last year.
A new front wing and floor were trialled in Friday practice at the Spanish Grand Prix, used on both cars in qualifying and will therefore be raced for the first time on Sunday.
McLaren had a low-key Friday as it conducted a lot of evaluation work with its new parts but after adapting the set-up to get the updated car working better, both Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were comfortable top-10 runners through qualifying and should be starting Sunday’s race higher than ninth and seventh respectively.
Norris’s qualifying was compromised by a lost set of soft tyres in Q1 caused by traffic compromising his first run, while Ricciardo failed to get a second run in the top-10 shootout because he did not start his final lap before time ran out.
Despite the disappointment, McLaren is buoyed by the performance of its new parts, which Key called “heavier steps we wanted to make” after smaller revisions since its MCL35M was launched.
He also promised further upgrades in the future, particularly as McLaren is still exploring the best solutions to the revised floor rules introduced this year.
“We had a tweak on the front wing architecture, you probably noticed that, and the floor as well, where the regulations really kicked in at the side of the floor – that’s still an area which is ripe for development, and still quite raw,” said Key when asked by The Race to explain the new updates.
“You kind of see a theme beginning to develop there, but there’s still plenty of performance to be found in some of these fresher areas so I guess it’s the first round, if you like, of both of those areas of the car.
“We brought them here and did a very thorough job [in Friday practice], we spent a lot of time back-to-backing so it was a slightly kind of slow day in a way, in that we had a lot of work to do to make sure we were happy with how the parts were working, tune the cars to them, give the drivers opportunity to back-to-back.
“We’ve kept the spec that we brought, so we have updated the car with the new parts, which is great news.
“An excellent effort from all the guys in aero and everyone at the factory to design it and push it through production, and the production process to get it here on time and give both drivers the sets that they needed.
“We will be racing those new parts. And then we have some more parts coming. We haven’t finished the 35M yet. There’s a few updates still to come, there’s some still in a conceptual phase at the moment as well.”
Key said there is no target race to introduce those new parts and McLaren will trial them on-track as soon as it is appropriate to do so.
He explained that McLaren intends to continue devoting some development time to its 2021 car before fully turning all focus onto the new technical rules that will come into force in F1 next year.
McLaren is already locked in a close fight for third in the championship, with Ferrari the nearest challenger and Alpine and AlphaTauri threatening at different tracks as well.
Though the team is currently “best of the rest” behind Mercedes and Red Bull in the points, and finished in that position in all three races, McLaren has not yet managed to qualify fastest of the midfield teams.
That honour has gone to Ferrari at every race, although McLaren felt both drivers were in with a chance of grabbing the second-row start that Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc ultimately won, had they not encountered their respective misfortunes.
“We felt a bit disappointed because there was more in it,” admitted team boss Andreas Seidl.
“With what we have seen in the morning and during quali at different stages, together with the upgrades that we introduced to the car, we had a car to end up higher up.
“Unfortunately, the way qualifying evolved with Lando losing one side of the soft tyres in Q1 and then with not managing to get the second run of new tyres in with Daniel at the very end, we missed out a bit. And therefore we feel a bit disappointed.
“On the positive side, we have seen we have a very competitive car. It’s great work from the team back home also and thanks to the great work the team has done overnight together with the drivers with the support from home, to get this car to this performance today after I would say not a straightforward Friday.
“The good thing is, Daniel definitely made a good step forward, we have a competitive car, and we’re still in a very good position to fight again for a lot of good points.”
Seidl’s reference to Ricciardo’s progress follows the ex-Red Bull and Renault driver’s difficult qualifying in Portugal last week and his ongoing effort to get used to McLaren’s car.
Extensive work on his braking technique and also building up familiarity with the MCL35M has continued through the Spain weekend and Ricciardo felt he had made a “mini-breakthrough” that allowed him to outqualify Norris, who he had trailed by some margin on Friday.
“The car was tricky [in Friday practice] and I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the high-speed stuff to be honest,” said Ricciardo.
“That showed [in qualifying]. In sector one we were pretty quick. We were purple a few times and once you get into Turn 1, you just get on the throttle and hold on.
“I certainly had the confidence to hold on to it, we brought some updates and I think basically we improved the set-up to make the updates work.
“That was probably where we found the speed.”