INSIGHT: Why McLaren is right to be worried about 2023

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INSIGHT: Why McLaren is right to be worried about 2023

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Why McLaren is right to be worried about 2023


This was always going to be a transitional year for McLaren. Its investment in major infrastructure projects such as a new state-of-the-art windtunnel and driver-in-loop simulator at its Woking base, which were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, won’t truly start paying off until 2024 and beyond. But while that will significantly increase McLaren’s potential, there are concerning signs that it hasn’t reached the level it needs to in its current form as a jumping off point.

While pre-season testing is always inconclusive, it’s clear things haven’t gone as hoped for McLaren. While Aston Martin looks to be snapping at the heels of at least the lower reaches of F1’s big three, and even below-the-radar Alpine looks to have made gains, McLaren has gone backwards. Having finished third, then fourth, then fifth in the constructors’ championship over the previous three seasons, it could be even worse off this year.

There is potential light at the end of the tunnel and the target is still fourth, but first it’s important to establish that it genuinely is on the back foot. At the launch of the McLaren MCL60, named to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the team by eponymous founder Bruce McLaren, the tone was downbeat. That continued at testing, with a car that looked somewhat limited, but not terrible, on track and hardly set the world alight in terms of pace. At best, it looked like perhaps the eighth-quickest car. Although things could be better than that come this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, it seems inconceivable that it has a top-10 car on merit.

McLaren boss Zak Brown has admitted “we set some goals for development, which we didn’t hit”. That confirmed the cautious tone that infested the launch was about more than managing expectations. Team principal Andrea Stella subsequently elaborated on what has gone wrong, pointing to one very significant target that was missed.

“Last year we had some clear objectives in terms of the developments to do with aerodynamic efficiency, some developments related to the exploitation of the tire usage and also some other objectives to improve the balance,” said Stella. “The reality is that most of these objectives have actually been met.

“But the objective in terms of aerodynamic efficiency of the car is the one where we are still shy of our target. Some of the objectives have been met, [but] aerodynamic efficiency still not where we would like it to be or where we would like it to be to be a top-four contender.”

Given aerodynamic efficiency is a broad church and top of the list when it comes to the fundamentals of F1 car performance, this is worrying. That’s doubly so given McLaren has been butting up against some persistent aero problems that, despite shifting around in how they manifest themselves, have made the recent run of McLarens tricky to drive.

That’s what Daniel Ricciardo found so difficult. Lando Norris characterized last year’s car as being on a “knife-edge” in terms of where it delivers performance, with the car “not driveable when you’re on either side of that knife-edge”. It was his ability to improvise and react when what was an inconsistent car didn’t behave as expected that allowed Norris to outperform Ricciardo so comprehensively. And Norris felt he had to change his driving style significantly at the start of 2022 in order to achieve that.

While Norris said the team is “in a better place” than last year, that doesn’t mean the performance of the car is good enough. In 2022, McLaren’s running in the Bahrain test in particular was ruined by front-brake cooling problems. This was down to what technical director James Key described as a “real oddball” problem with the airflow through the brake cooling ducts not flowing as anticipated. In some cases, it even induced flow in the reverse direction to what was expected. The result: cooked brakes.

Although McLaren was able to patch up the problem and recover to fight for fourth in the constructors’ championship, it remained a difficult car. It also hints at some deficit in terms of aerodynamic understanding that appears still to dog this year’s car given there appeared to be temperature-related damage being sustained by the aero fairings mounted inside and sweeping above the front wheels.

Norris was able to live with a difficult McLaren to some degree last year, but won’t relish the prospect of having to do so again in 2023. Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

Given the complexity of F1 aerodynamics, it’s likely this is all related to the same root problem, especially given Norris has said that “fundamentally the car handles in a reasonably similar way to last year”. While he attempted to accentuate the positive, this is not a good thing and hints this could be just another in a lineage of tricky-to-drive McLarens.

“On the whole, it is too early to tell,” said Norris when asked if it was another difficult car. “There were some tracks [last year]where it was easier and some tracks where it was more difficult than others. We’ll try and understand and try some more things. There’s nothing which has surprised us in a good or a bad way, so you can look at that in a good or a bad way.

“We know where we are, we didn’t come into testing expecting a huge amount. We didn’t come in with a whole new philosophy or anything, and our plan is more what we can achieve through this year rather than what we start the year with. But nothing’s changed too much in terms of handling and driving.”

This brings us to what could be the savior of McLaren’s season. While it hasn’t hit its marks with the start-of-season car, there is a significant upgrade package that will potentially be introduced at the fourth race of the season. That’s the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the end of April. Crucially, this reflects a significant change in direction for McLaren that was only hit on a few months ago in its aero research program.

It’s unclear how dramatic this change in direction is, although Stella indicates it arose through a combination of McLaren’s own work and studying principles used by other teams.

“I can’t disclose too many details, but let’s say in general we realized probably late that there were some development directions that had more potential in terms of development rate and also in terms of development over a longer period,” said Stella. “But we didn’t realize that early enough to [allow] these development directions to be part of the launch specification of the car.

“You look at some other cars, the geometry of the car is visible, it’s just looking at competitors and also yourself. It’s not only relative to what you see in other cars, it’s also like ‘ah, we understand this direction’ and then you say ‘ah, we should have been there already a few months ago already’.”

This change could be make or break not only for McLaren’s 2023 season, but also its longer-term ambitions of re-emerging as a consistent race-winning and even title-challenging force. Its last world championship was in 2008, when Lewis Hamilton won the drivers’ title, and it has just one victory in the past 10 years. In the years after its last title, McLaren fell behind as teams like Red Bull and Mercedes raised the overall game and it’s that trough that the team is still hauling its way out of after realizing in 2018 that Honda was not the cause of all its ills when the change to Renault engines proved not to be the panacea it sought.

If McLaren is to hit frontrunning form on the timescale originally envisaged, it’s essential that this direction bears fruit. If so, it should unlock more immediate performance, greater long-term potential and indicate McLaren has understood whatever deficit in aero that appears to have plagued it. And if the upgrade performs as hoped and puts McLaren back on track to get back to the sharp end of F1’s midfield, which is where it needs to be if it’s to kick on as its new facilities come online, this might only be a temporary mis-step.

If not, then it could raise very serious questions about the team’s trajectory and potentially even whether more fundamental changes must be made to achieve its grand ambitions.

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