Analysis: Qualifying a Burden for McLaren

In a world where improving aerodynamics is viewed as the key to success, McLaren have found themselves in a bit of a quandary so far this season - because the MP4-20's aerodynamics are so good that the car is not abusing its tyres enough

Technical director Adrian Newey's latest product has proved itself to be just as fast as the pace-setting Renault in race conditions, where its low drag and high downforce qualities allow the drivers to keep their tyres in near-perfect condition, but those same characteristics have left the drivers floundering in qualifying because they cannot get enough heat into their tyres.

The one-lap tyre issue has been a characteristic of recent McLarens but this year the problem seems to have been further accentuated by the new qualifying regulations - which effectively double any disadvantage the drivers have in their single lap pace.

Parc ferme rules, which mean set-up changes cannot be made after qualifying, also hinder the team's chances of resolving the issue.

Well aware of the qualifying handicap, McLaren have tried to compensate for the low grid positions by filling up their cars with more fuel than their rivals - but that then has the knock on affect of making the cars slower during the opening stints, which makes progress through the field difficult.

By the time the fuel loads have come off and some hard charging and pitstop strategy have helped the McLaren drivers to move up the order, they are too far behind the leaders to have any chance of challenging for the wins.

Few doubt a McLaren at the front of the grid would be a real threat to Renault - as recent fastest laps for Kimi Raikkonen and Pedro de la Rosa show.

Although some of the blame for the situation is being pinned on a lack of power from engine supplier Mercedes-Benz, who are due to test their latest specification engine at Barcelona in Spain this week, car modifications are now being undertaken to make the car harsher on its tyres over that single qualifying lap.

These are expected to revolve around the front suspension layout, which has had to be compromised to help fit around Newey's aerodynamics.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis knows only too well where his current problems lie - and makes no secret of the fact that if the team can get on top of this tyre heat issue then they may unlock the key to being able to take the fight to Renault.

"We go racing to win and the very reason we are strong in the second part of the race, is exactly the same reason why we are struggling a bit in qualifying," said Dennis.

"We just don't aggressively push into the tyres and that means that in qualifying we don't get enough energy into the tyres and that makes us struggle a bit. But these things are understood and we'll change the car. We've got a very extensive program, which I hope we can now accelerate into Imola, which is our target."

Although Dennis will not talk specifically about what the team are changing on the car, he has confirmed that he is not concerned about the aerodynamic potential of the MP4-20.

"I think the aerodynamics in the car are exceptional but there's several things in the car that are very good. And if Pedro can set the fastest lap you see the strength of the car at the end of the race and there's quite a few things that work.

"But we know very clearly where we need to improve the car and we know how to improve the car, and fortunately, those elements that need to be redesigned have already been introduced to the production. But some of these components that we are working on don't have the quick building time as other components that affect the performance of the car.

"We are confident that our Spanish GP will be much stronger and in about two weeks we'll have a clear indication of how much we'll be able to accelerate the development in time for Imola."

But there may be another way for McLaren to unlock their potential - getting their hands on softer tyres. Knowing full well just how good their car is at looking after its rubber, McLaren are putting pressure on Michelin to allow them to break away from the route of their rivals and run with extra-soft compounds - which will be much quicker for the single qualifying lap.

"I think the tyres are fantastic," added Dennis. "The reality is that we could use much softer tyres and we were hampered by not pursuing that, but that has been discussed with Michelin and they are totally committed to give the teams what they want.

"There is no question that any team can go down a path, if necessary and they'll support that team. It's a very strong contrast to the other tyre manufacturer in Formula One and the end result is that this is what a partnership really is."

Considering the extent to which McLaren were able to turnaround their disastrous start to 2004, few would bet against the team getting on top of their slightly less severe problems this time around.

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