How much trouble is McLaren really in with its 2023 F1 car?

It's been no secret since McLaren launched its new MCL60 Formula 1 car earlier this month that it was going to face a tough start to the season.

How much trouble is McLaren really in with its 2023 F1 car?

Team principal Andrea Stella's admission that the squad was not "entirely happy" with the launch specification version of its 2023 challenger had laid down a clear marker in reducing expectations.

Launches are normally happy scene-setters for the campaign ahead, and it is quite rare for teams to deliver such a downbeat assessment as their shiny new model is revealed.

The conclusion was that it was either a deliberate attempt to make very bad news less of a shock when track action got underway, or it was just an honest response from a former engineer to a perfectly normal question.

But ever since F1 testing got underway in Bahrain on Thursday, it has been clear why Stella commented in such a manner, because the McLaren has appeared to be out of sorts.

Its lap times have not been stellar and, out on track, the car has appeared laboured, not braking and turning in as well as others and leaving Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri having to wait much later than their rivals to get back on power.

Confirmation of the team's situation came on Friday lunchtime when CEO Zak Brown offered some more details in the regular lunchtime press conference. He explained that it was simply down to missing key development targets.

On Friday evening, Stella delivered some more insight on exactly what Brown meant by the missed targets.

"Last year, we had some clear objectives in terms of development," he said. "They had to do with aerodynamic efficiency; some development related to the exploitation of the tyres, and also some other objectives to improve the balance.

"The reality is that most of these objectives have actually been met. But the objective in terms of aerodynamic efficiency of the car, that's the one where we are still shy of what was our target."

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Poor aerodynamic efficiency essentially means an F1 car produces too much drag at a set downforce level.

It is the opposite of what a team wants, which is maximum downforce for the corners and minimum drag for good top speed.

The biggest problem with draggy cars is not that they are slow in a straight line, it is the compromises that they force teams to make.

In a bid to minimise the deficit down a straight, where a lot of time can bleed away, teams have to reduce wing angles to compensate.

That then means the car is running with less downforce for the corners, which makes things harder in braking and slower through the turns.

This is the spiral of negativity that McLaren finds itself trapped in right now, with a car it knows can theoretically be better around the corners. However, if it went in that direction, it would actually be slower around the lap because of time lost on the straights.

Short-term pain...

With F1's midfield being so tight in competitive terms, McLaren's acceptance that it is giving away performance means there is no hiding from the fact that the season start could be a struggle.

While other teams have clearly made good steps forward with their 2023 cars - especially potential rivals like Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo - McLaren's progress hasn't been as great.

"We didn't take a step backwards. We just didn't develop fast enough," confessed Stella.

It's why the Italian suggested that, if it does not get everything right in the early races, there was a risk of getting thrown out in Q1.

"I think we will see again that the midfield is very compact," he said. "And this means that if you don't do a good enough job, even in setting up and maximising what you have, you may struggle to get out of Q1. At the same time, you might be a Q3 contender.

Andrea Stella, Race Engineer, McLaren

Andrea Stella, Race Engineer, McLaren

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

"So, I think the fork is relatively open, it is relatively wide. I think when I'm talking about competitiveness, I would say our objective through the season is to be a top-four car. At the moment, I would say we are not necessarily in this range."

The potential for some early Q1 exits does not sound great, but there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that McLaren finds itself under.

What is especially important to understand about McLaren's situation is that where it is now is not where it will be all season, as it is effectively in a holding pattern.

It is certainly not facing the kind of nightmare that many teams have been through in the past of turning up at the first test confident in what it has done, only then to find itself falling flat on its face.

The complexities and timescales involved in F1 mean that such late shocks often take weeks and even months to recover from, as teams have to spend a great deal of time getting to the bottom of just what has gone wrong.

McLaren's situation is different, having known for a while that it has been on the incorrect path.

Long-term gains...

A different development direction to open up a performance benefit has long been understood in the wind tunnel, and work has been processing flat out in getting new parts ready.

McLaren is, in simple terms, biding its time until production can be given the green light for the new package to get to the car, potentially in time for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

As Stella pointed out about the MCL60: "I wouldn't call it a problem. In F1, the material you have right now trackside is material that you had two or three months ago in development.

"So the good news is that we have good development streams going on and they will land trackside in some weeks.

"So that's why you see me not necessarily the most optimistic now, but rather more optimistic for what's coming in the season."

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

The true answer then to McLaren's fate for the campaign ahead will not, therefore, be in how much difficulty it has in Bahrain, it's how much of a step comes when its first key upgrade arrives.

Stella has no doubts that there is a clear performance jump coming, which is why he says all is not lost for Woking.

"There's a couple of components where we see that there's quite a bit of lap time sensitivity," he said.

"I can't say what [they are], and it will not necessarily look like a completely different car, but some of the changes seem to make a significant difference for aerodynamic efficiency."

For a man who chose his words so carefully at the launch, his talk of a "significant" step should not be underestimated.

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