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The real game-changing aspect of McLaren’s Miami F1 upgrades

When McLaren revealed the scale of the upgrade package that it was bringing to Miami, it was clear how ambitious a step this was.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

As the official submission to the FIA about its developments revealed, almost no aerodynamic surface had been left untouched with the full package of changes that had been fitted to Lando Norris's car.

While the Woking-based squad had teased beforehand about the revisions being part of efforts to address a weakness in low speed, the true motive of these latest developments was obvious: pure downforce.

In F1, though, not all downforce is the same – and the key to real success is in delivering it in an efficient a manner as possible.

Depending on which way you look at it, efficiency is about too much drag, or too little downforce, for a set wing level.

It is quite easy to bring a barn door rear wing that produces a ton of ‘dirty’ downforce to help you be quick around the corners, but that is no good as soon as a car starts stretching its legs on the straights.

What is critical to understand about McLaren’s Miami upgrades is that it brought a double whammy of gains: more clean downforce to be quicker around the corners, which opened the door to letting it run less wing (so more speed on the straights). It was very much a case of having its cake and eating it.

As McLaren team boss Andrea Stella explained, the focus of its effort was in bringing efficient downforce that did not add drag – which then allowed it to trim things off elsewhere.

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

So after a recent history of it being slightly on the backfoot on the straights, it did not go unnoticed that it was more competitive against its rivals now.

“We had good top speed here,” explained Stella. “One of the reasons is that we on purpose decided to go for a relatively light rear wing.

“We could do that because we added downforce through the package, and this means that we needed to be less demanding from a rear wing point of view, which is never too efficient.

“When you upgrade a car with floors and sidepods, it's always more efficient than putting downforce on with a rear wing.”

The overall benefits of the package were also complemented by it going a slightly different way to what would be expected on set up.

So rather than capitalising on the advantage it has over rivals in high-speed corners, it shifted its focus to be better optimised for the slower sections.

As Stella explained: “We consciously decided to set up the car to maximise low-speed performance.

“The decent performance we had in low-speed is not necessarily because of the characteristic of the package, it's also because of some conscious decisions as to how we set up the cars to make sure that we were as strong as possible in low-speed.

“If you look at qualifying, we lost quite a lot of time in the high-speed section, but this was kind of a deliberate set-up choice.”

Miami was just the start, and there is more to come too. Stella suggests that upgrades in in the pipeline will help further address the problems it has faced in low speed.

Asked about how much the upgrades had solved its weakness in this area, Stella said: “Not to the entirety that we would have wished. There's some more specific work and upgrades that we need to deliver to address low speed in particular.”

Even before the well-timed safety car helped Norris on his way to victory, the potential of the new McLaren upgrade was pretty clear to see.

It hadn’t been shown – with that scrappy lap in SQ3 and a Turn 1 exit in the sprint – but when he got clear air in the race, Norris was flying.

As the Briton explained after the race: “I said already on Friday, it felt good. I was confident on Friday and today that kind of feeling came back to me a lot. It was good. A lot of Sundays recently have been strong. Just today we managed to step it up and turn it into something even more.”

Key now though will be in finding out in Imola as to whether the upgrades are a sign that McLaren is now a genuine threat to Red Bull, or if it was simply good fortune in Miami that helped Norris come out on top.

For as runner-up Max Verstappen said when asked about whether he thought he could have won without the safety car: “I mean, it's always if, if, if, right? If my mum had balls, she would be my dad.

“It's how it goes to racing. Sometimes it works out for you, sometimes it doesn't.”

McLaren’s job now is to turn the sometimes into more times.

Additional reporting by Filip Cleeren and Ronald Vording.

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