Why all eyes won’t just be on Daniel Ricciardo at the Hungarian Grand Prix

Thomas Maher
McLaren's Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri at the British Grand Prix. Silverstone, July 2023.

McLaren's Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri at the British Grand Prix. Silverstone, July 2023.

Having shot into leading contention with their upgraded MCL60 at Silverstone, the Hungaroring is the true litmus test for McLaren’s performance level.

Another team joined in the battle for best of the rest behind Red Bull at the British Grand Prix, with McLaren shooting up the pack from midfield mediocrity to challenge for the front row in qualifying and keep the pressure on Max Verstappen on race day.

It was a Jekyll and Hyde type showing from McLaren, with the MCL60 having been outright poor for most of the first nine weekends of the year – only to completely eclipse the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes, and Aston Martin almost immediately after extensive upgrades were fitted.

If McLaren are fast in Hungary, a fascinating second half awaits

While Red Bull (in the hands of Max Verstappen, at least) have been fast at every single race weekend this year as they chase down McLaren’s record of a 100% win rate for a season, their rivals have all taken turns at challenging.

The swing in performances from track to track means there’s no clear answer as to who has the second-quickest car on the grid: Ferrari, Mercedes, and Aston Martin have all held that position at different race weekends.

McLaren, having shown up at testing and in Bahrain with a car they knew wasn’t going to do the job, bided their time as they developed an extensive upgrade package for the MCL60. While struggling to bring home points finishes, former McLaren driver and World Champion Mika Hakkinen posited the Woking-based team could make massive strides and perhaps even bring a challenge to Red Bull – a seemingly laughable suggestion just a few short weeks ago.

McLaren have not developed a ‘B’ car (in a budget cap age, teams seem very reluctant to use that term nowadays), but the upgrade package has taken the car in a completely different direction. For Austria, the upgrades started rolling through – initially fitted to Lando Norris’ car. A new floor, the top sections of the sidepod bodywork, and the sidepod inlets were all heavily revised and, dodgy sprint race aside, Norris clearly had the legs on Oscar Piastri all weekend as he went on to finish a much more competitive fourth on Sunday.

With both cars fitted with the package, including further revisions to the brake ducts and a new-specification front wing, Norris and Piastri were the sensations of Silverstone – only Verstappen’s magic prevented an all-McLaren front row and, while the Red Bull still clearly had the legs on race day, the gap was significantly smaller than before.

But the real test will be the Hungaroring. Further upgrades, aimed at improving the race pace, are set for roll-out, but the very different track layout means the versatility of the package will be tested. While Silverstone is one of the most flowing and fastest tracks on the calendar, the Hungaroring is a claustrophobic bowl with plenty of low and medium-speed corners. Having a fast car at a fast track is one thing, having a fast car at a slow track is another – having a fast car at both is the key to consistent success.

Team boss Andrea Stella has acknowledged the importance of the Hungarian weekend as serving as a proper gauge of where McLaren really are.

“We look forward to Hungary, to check more comprehensively where we really are,” he told media, including PlanetF1.com, after the British Grand Prix.

“There’s not as much high speed. If anything, it is a low, medium-speed dominated track. And also, you can have hot conditions which is, again, another testing territory for us as well.”

Having had such a drastically different weekend at Silverstone, a strong weekend in Hungary could indicate a very different second half of the season, but Stella isn’t willing to get carried away – particularly as he admitted McLaren hadn’t expected such a drastic improvement.

“I don’t necessarily think about the destination, I just think about what do we have to put in place to keep improving,” he said.

“Somehow, the way we discuss internally is to let the results come to us, we just have to focus on what we need to do on a technical level, at sporting level, financial level, you know? That’s our mindset.

“So, if we take the technical elements and the performance, we just have to keep delivering upgrades to the car. Sometimes, you actually find surprises like these upgrades that we have taken to Austria and Silverstone. Numerically, we were not expecting this improvement from a laptime point of view.

“We remain focused on just delivering upgrades to the car, which means designing, conceiving them, producing them, logistics, and so on. Then we will see later on where we are in the journey.”

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Daniel Ricciardo makes an eagerly-anticipated return

While his former team comes on in leaps and bounds to dominate the news, Daniel Ricciardo has made headlines all on his own over the last few days.

Having opted to take a sabbatical from racing in 2023 after his love of F1 was crushed out of him during his two years with an incompatible McLaren, Ricciardo has been angling for a seat in the Red Bull stable ever since signing up as their reserve driver for the year.

A stand-out lap time in the Pirelli tyre test after Silverstone was the apparent reason for Red Bull choosing to ditch Nyck de Vries and sign Ricciardo as Yuki Tsunoda’s teammate for the remainder of the season – a move that also has the effect of lighting a fire under the bum of the struggling Sergio Perez.

But Ricciardo faces a huge test to gather back his F1 career momentum. He rejoins the F1 grid midway through the year when everyone around him, including his teammate, is race-sharp and at one with the machines they’ve been driving since February – Ricciardo has very little preparation time beyond the Pirelli test and some simulator work.

The AlphaTauri AT04 is also one of, if not the outright, worst cars on the grid. Added to that is the fact that Ricciardo, even pre-sabbatical, was driving at a level unbecoming of a Formula 1 driver. While his enthusiasm and joie de vivre have been rekindled, what about his talent?

Can McLaren keep pace with rivals like Red Bull?

While McLaren have been able to unlock significant performance from the MCL60 as the ground effect regulations begin to mature, their rivals aren’t standing still.

Red Bull haven’t been particularly aggressive with their upgrades so far in 2023, but will show up with a host of changes for Budapest as Max Verstappen confirmed to media, including PlanetF1.com, at Silverstone.

“Hungary is a completely different track, we will put some upgrades on the car there and, hopefully, they will work well,” he said.

Asked what the upgrades will target, Verstappen gave a shopping list: “Drag, low-speed, medium-speed, high-speed, DRS effect, tyre wear… all of these areas!

“That’s what we’re working on. I’m not kidding.”

Mercedes had a new front wing for the British GP, but it’s the Hungaroring that its effects should be felt best, according to technical director James Allison.

“The specific characteristic of this new front wing that we are excited about is that it should improve the balance and performance of the car through the slower range of corners,” he said.

“I guess it will only be when we get to Hungary, which is a track made up almost entirely of slower stuff, that we’ll get to know for sure.”

For Silverstone, Aston Martin had new rear brake ducts and rear corners to go with their new floor from Canada, and will continue fettling them in this weekend in Budapest, while Ferrari also continue to hone in their upgrades from Austria.

But it’s all eyes on McLaren, to see whether the Woking-based squad can continue their upward momentum as they roll out the next big portion of upgrades – Stella confirming the plan is to continue development of the MCL60 for some time to come.

“So, for Hungary, we have some further updates that we learn more from the point of view of trying to improve the race pace. These will be available to both drivers,” he said.

“By Hungary, we don’t expect that the specification of the car will not be aligned between Oscar and Lando. Like any other team, we will carry on delivering some upgrades to the following races. This is also thanks to the fact that, once we started redesigning the car, now we kind of unlocked performance, and through iterations we keep seeing the aerodynamic development being quite effective.

“Obviously, as soon as you see that a project is mature enough to deliver, you press the go button and you go, so there will be some more stuff coming even after Hungary.”

Having finally reached a point where it feels like their season has actually started, albeit from a position where they are 98 points behind fourth-place Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship, Stella outlined the targets he’s hopeful McLaren can hit.

“You can have targets as an element of discussion,” he said.

“Actually, it doesn’t necessarily change your approach – our approach was always going to be to push as hard as possible in terms of development, but we can logic with clear direction. And then we will see where we end up.

“Once we started to develop the car, we saw that the rate of development meant our reasonable expectation was that, by the end of the season, we could have fought with the fourth-weakest teams. That was what we thought was possible.

“So it is, in a way, a bit of a surprise that we find ourselves in this condition by now, but we will see how things fall later.

“Obviously, our expectation is for McLaren to be able to compete for podiums in the future, next season. And for victories in the following season. If you want, this is kind of the long-term vision.

“But you don’t deliver based on visions, you deliver based on the parts that you actually bring to the car. And that’s our focus.”

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