McLaren are discovering a consistent weakness in their MCL60 challenger when the drivers are off the brake and throttle.
The team’s showing at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix suggested that after starting the season behind target, there were now signs of a looming recovery as both Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri made the final Q3 stage of qualifying, with Norris then scoring a P9 finish in the race.
That was the first outing for McLaren with their upgraded floor, but while Norris had expected it to be slightly more effective in Miami, instead from a pace perspective it seemed that McLaren were back to square one.
This time around both Norris and Piastri were out in Q1, before recording P17 and P19 finishes respectively in the race, Piastri having suffered throughout with brake-by-wire issues, while Norris incurred floor damage.
It was already in Baku though where McLaren were noticing a trend, where within their successes on the resurfaced high-grip track, areas like the ‘castle section’, which require the drivers to “roll” through, were highlighting a glaring weakness in the MCL60.
“There’s a trend emerging,” said team boss Andrea Stella, as per Motorsport.com. “This trend is that when the grip is high, our car gains competitiveness.
“We think this trend is related to the fact that the lower the grip, the more you have to spend time off brakes, off throttle. This is a situation in which our car doesn’t work very well.
“[When] temperatures were low – track temperature, ambient temperature – the car was much happier. The drivers could attack.
“If you attack the braking, then you minimise this phase in mid-corner in which you roll out the brakes, out of the throttle. Immediately we gain competitiveness.
“If we look at Baku, for instance, with the new tarmac this year, the grip was high and in all the sections where you can brake hard, short corners like Turns 1 and 2, we were competitive. Very short time off throttle, off brakes.
“But if you see the castle section where you have to roll, we were not very competitive even in Baku. So, this is a trend.
“This trend is important that it is understood because somehow it leads the development direction as well.
“We knew that with the Baku upgrade we added some downforce, but we didn’t change the characteristics of the car.
“So, I’m not too surprised that in these low grip conditions, spending a lot of time out of brakes, out of throttle, we lose relative competitiveness.”
In years gone by, teams would have had as much time as they desired and could afford in the wind tunnel to work to develop out such issues, but that is no longer the case with allowances set on the amount of wind tunnel time each team receives.
This operates on a sliding scale, with the Constructors’ champs getting the least down to the bottom team which gets the most. McLaren find themselves in the middle after a P5 finish last season.
And so, Stella says it makes sense now to weight their development in favour of addressing this trait which they have discovered.
“We see that the car is strong in straight-line braking. We see that the car is strong in high-speed sections,” Stella added.
“The advantage is that you can steer and centre your development. What we are learning in these early races is that we need to put even more focus in this condition: off brakes, off throttle and towards low speed.”
Will looming McLaren two-part upgrade deliver?
Now that McLaren are seemingly decided on the conditions where their MCL60 must improve, Stella will be hoping that the upcoming two-part upgrade which he confirmed will go a long way to addressing this weakness.
With minor updates planned for the upcoming Emila Romagna GP, McLaren are then planning to do the majority of their damage with more substantial packages which will arrive at the Canadian Grand Prix and then the British GP at Silverstone.
This is a team which by 2025 at the latest, intends on fighting for Formula 1’s top honours like they once did, and so it goes without saying that a car struggling to score points with any consistency is a very poor starting point.
It feels then like the team’s F1 2023 development programme will be vital if they are to spark true belief that they will be a leading team again in that relatively short timeframe.