McLaren’s slow start to the Formula 1 season is showing signs of gaining momentum, although even the encouraging debut of a major upgrade still showed how much more progress is required.
After scoring no points in the first two races, McLaren now has back-to-back scores. It is small change compared to what the team is aiming for but reversing, not just stopping, the downward trajectory is at least a step towards recovery.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix was McLaren’s best qualifying performance in terms of pace, and it got both cars into Q3 for the first time this year. It then scored points in the race with Lando Norris ninth, which meant McLaren slightly strengthened its grasp of fifth in the constructors’ championship. Alpine’s disastrous weekend continued its wasteful start to the season and means McLaren is six points clear of its fierce 2022 rival. Small victories…
Though it remains adrift of the top four teams, with Aston Martin now firmly among the lead group, McLaren’s upgrade seems to have moved the team forward in Baku – along with AlphaTauri, which has also heavily updated its car after a poor start to the season.
McLaren team principal Andrea Stella said the result was made possible by a brand new floor and a beam wing upgrade, which were developments McLaren had hoped to start the season with in Bahrain.
The complexity and sensitivity of the underfloor is a significant departure from the prescribed nature of the previous regulations and something that clearly caught McLaren out last year.
Stella said it was not just a matter of getting the basic concept right – “which we haven’t done for the start of the season” – but described it as “a game of millimetres here and there” thereafter. There are visible changes along the floor edge and in the surface geometry but a lot is said to be different underneath too.
McLaren did not expect this floor to change the handling characteristics of the car, as Stella said it has not changed the aerodynamic map through the corners but just added overall load.
At the same time, the Baku upgrade package included a reconfigured beam wing to reduce drag, and this has started to produce the efficiency gains McLaren clearly needs – with straightline speed performance further boosted by trimming the upper part of the rear wing.
Stella said McLaren had “reassuring” correlation in Baku and while he would not give numbers related the downforce and drag, he did reveal that the package was expected to be worth “two or three tenths” in Baku and “we think that’s what happened”.
However, there was still an obvious straightline speed deficit in the midfield. McLaren was only eighth-fastest in the speed traps in qualifying and sprint shootout and in the race, Norris said it was “pretty much impossible to overtake”.
“We made some progress on this track,” said Stella.
“The issue is still that you can reduce the drag and be faster in the straights, but you wouldn’t be quick enough in the corners because that’s the overall efficiency that we are missing at the moment.
“This is through pretty much all levels of drag, all levels of rear wing, but in tracks like this you feel it even more.
“So, there is definitely work to do in improving the top speed of the car.”
McLaren is slowly catching up and future upgrades should be supported by the technical reorganisation enacted last month, with technical director James Key ousted and replaced by a three-person technical executive team.
The fact the Baku upgrade was a “completely new floor” means further upgrades are inevitable, not just to the floor but to connected elements like the floor edges and the sidepods.
“The rest of the car is a work in progress,” said Stella. “The shape will evolve very visibly, more visibly [than this].”
There should be one significant package before the summer break and one after it too. The pre-break upgrades should include significant revisions that Stella has previously, and very tentatively, likened to a B-spec car.
Norris is banking on those developments providing “bigger gains” as he felt the Baku package was only a “small step forward” overall, at least in Baku.
It’s possible the package will be more impactful in Miami this weekend with more medium- and high-speed corners. But Norris said it was “more of a different philosophy to have a baseline with”, which means a better place to develop from rather than being transformative now.
Though Norris is wary of McLaren playing a “repetitive game” by being optimistic about future progress, he claims there is a “happier, more optimistic” attitude towards development prospects now.
“I have even more faith that with the new structure and some of the new people we have, everyone is a bit more free and willing to try new things and make bigger steps,” said Norris.
“We have things coming which are looking good and definitely bigger steps than we had [in Baku].”