Are McLaren ready to win again?
Despite being one of F1’s true powerhouse teams, McLaren haven’t won a grand prix since 2012, nor a title since 2008. But look closely and you’ll see that all the ingredients for success are already there.
On the face of it, the question sounds ridiculous: are McLaren ready to win? Surely the answer is ‘no’, given that they haven’t come close to winning a race since the end of 2012, and have been an average of just under two seconds a lap off pole over the course of 2016 to date.
Yet ask that question of McLaren racing director Eric Boullier, or Honda F1 boss Yusuke Hasegawa, and the answer is surprising.
“Of course we are,”says Boullier, firmly.
“I think we are more than ever.”
Hasegawa adds: “Yes, I think so. Of course, the engine is not strong enough yet and McLaren still make some mistakes – as do all of the teams – but as soon as we get on to the first row, we are ready to win.”
That’s a significant caveat, but there is an unmistakable sense of optimism about both McLaren and Honda as this season begins to wind to a conclusion and more and more attention is focused on 2017.
How can this be so, when, at the time of writing (after the Belgian Grand Prix), the team are languishing in sixth place in the constructors’ championship? Allow us to explain…
The car’s a beauty
The three-and-a-half years since Jenson Button closed 2012 with his win in Brazil have been the worst of McLaren’s illustrious history in F1. The slump caught even the team by surprise. No wins – nothing even close – yet rather than recognising in 2013 that things had got really bad and looking for a way out of the abyss, the team’s performance just got worse and worse.
The nadir came in 2015. The car had been improved, although it wasn’t easy to tell because the Honda engine was nowhere near ready to race. It lagged in the region of 250bhp behind the Mercedes once its hybrid boost ran out of energy part-way down most straights.
This year, though, there have been signs that the team are getting back on the right track, and moving forward with intent and purpose. A comparison of qualifying times, year on year, is illustrative: the average qualifying deficit to pole in 2015 was 2.6 seconds. This year, so far, it is 1.9s. The Honda engine is still a long way behind, but the car itself is unquestionably good.
McLaren claim to have the equal-third-fastest chassis with Ferrari, behind the Mercedes and the Red Bull, and the speed traces available to all teams bear this out. F1 Racing has seen a series of these traces comparing McLaren’s pace around laps of various circuits and two things are clear. First, how much the car loses on the straights, even with the improved Honda engine. And second, that it is quick around the corners. How quick? Well, Mercedes and Red Bull are faster. But the McLaren is faster than Ferrari in slow corners, although slower in quick corners.
“When you take an average of all the races,” says Boullier, we are fighting with Ferrari in terms of chassis. Red Bull and Mercedes are better than us, but we are best of the rest.”
However, the raw data neglects one important factor. Because the Honda is so down on power, McLaren have focused their aerodynamic upgrades on efficiency, rather than maximum performance; being at the bottom of the speed traps means they cannot afford to add drag.
“We have to be very efficient aerodynamically,” Boullier says. “If you bring downforce, we can’t bring drag. If you have Mercedes power, you can change your aggressiveness in car development.”
All Formula 1 car design is based on a calculation of negative lift and drag. The ideal ratio is different depending on how much power the engine has. That is not to say that the car in its current form would be fighting for wins if Honda had another 80-100bhp. That’s clearly not the case. Extra power would, however, let McLaren refocus their upgrade plan, and if they’ve turned around to the extent Boullier believes since 2013, they could get closer relatively quickly. So, have they?much earlier in the season – and this was subsequently verified by the team’s engineering notes. But, for whatever reason, it hadn’t been acted upon. Because Kimi is never the sort of person who will tell people how to do their jobs; he merely provides them with the information they need to do it themselves. And that’s actually a good thing, very much in keeping with the current Ferrari philosophy laid down by team principal Maurizio Arrivabene.