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Why adapting to McLaren's 2021 F1 car has proven difficult

The 2021 Formula 1 season has been an encouraging one for a resurgent McLaren team as it battles with Ferrari for third place in the world championship.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

That fight became even closer after Hungary, where neither of the orange and blue cars scored as a result of first lap contact, and Carlos Sainz Jr logged a valuable third place.

The two rivals are now locked together on 163 points, with the Maranello outfit officially ahead thanks to the two second places it has earned.

It says a lot about the strong form of both teams in 2021 that after 11 races in 2020, McLaren had earned only 116 points and yet still went on to snatch third in the championship from Racing Point.

There's no chance of improving on that finish in 2021, and indeed even maintaining it will not be easy given Ferrari's pace. However, another important measure of form is that the overall performance gap between to the two frontrunners has closed.

Over the remainder of this season, the McLaren vs Ferrari contest will be an intriguing sidebar to the battle at the front between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes, and how it will play out is anybody's guess.

What is clear is that McLaren needs Daniel Ricciardo to be backing up Lando Norris and scoring consistently well over the remaining races.

Norris' superb form has indicated that McLaren has made a step in 2021, continuing the overall progress seen over recent seasons – from ninth in the last year with Honda in 2017 to sixth, fourth and then third in subsequent seasons.

One of the driving forces behind that consistent improvement is racing director Andrea Stella, who joined from Ferrari back in 2015. The Italian doesn't talk to the media often, but when he does he always gives an honest and intriguing insight into what's happening behind the scenes in Woking.

"Being P3 is a great achievement," he says. "It was slightly surprising last year, fighting with the Racing Point.

"And it is as well this year, because we're fighting with Ferrari, that is obviously a great team for whom we have a lot of respect. P3, we'll see realistically if we will be able to confirm it, because the rate of points required per race to be P3 this year is very high.

"We are scoring I think 16 points on average per race [prior to Hungary], which is, realistically, quite ambitious."

Andrea Stella, Racing Director, McLaren

Andrea Stella, Racing Director, McLaren

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Ultimately, McLaren wants to win races and championships again, and not just be third best.

As noted, the gap to the two frontrunning teams has closed, and there have been weekends this year where Norris has been able to give them a run their money.

"We were a bit surprised, I have to say at some races, to be able to compete so closely with Mercedes and Red Bull," Stella admits.

"Like, for example, the second race in Austria, we were genuinely very close to pole position, and genuinely quick in the race, even if in the race, normally Red Bull and Mercedes tend to open up the gap compared to the midfield. That's a trend we have seen throughout the year."

Stella is pleased with the way the team responded to the winter downforce cuts, while also juggling the switch from Renault to Mercedes power and dealing with the FIA's freeze on mechanical development.

"Obviously the cars have been adapted compared to last year because of some technical regulation changes," he says. "Which even if geometrically don't look dramatic, actually the impact in terms of overall downforce loss was quite significant.

"So there's been a lot of work last year to recover the loss of downforce. And we are relatively happy with what we have been able to achieve in this respect.

"The first step was recovering as much as possible from the loss caused by the change of technical regulations for 2021 cars.

"Then what we realised pretty soon is that in doing so, when we achieve a decent level of aerodynamic efficiency of the car, what we kept is some characteristics of our car, which makes it relatively special to drive.

"And which in a way we see with the experience that Daniel is going through."

Ricciardo's struggle to adapt to the MCL35M has been one of the stories of this season.

It's easy for outsiders to be sceptical when a driver can't match his teammate's pace and talks about a car not suiting his style. However, McLaren understands why it's been so difficult for the Australian, and has sympathy for his plight.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"He came from the opposite end in terms of how you would like to drive an F1 car," says Stella. "Our car requires some special adaptation, let's say.

"I think it's no secret that our car is good in high-speed corners for example. It may not be the best car when you have to roll speed in the corner, as another example.

"So while we are trying to adjust some of the characteristics to make it a little bit more natural to drive, at the same time, the most important thing is to deliver aerodynamic efficiency.

"The focus has always been on improving aerodynamic efficiency, even if we couldn't necessarily improve these aspects in terms of balance and in terms of exploitation of the car.

"And, again, we are relatively happy with the improvement of aerodynamic efficiency that we've been able to achieve in the early races. And hopefully a little bit more will be coming in the next races."

Stella provides some valuable insight into Ricciardo's struggles.

"He is a driver who likes to roll the speed in the corner, not necessarily attack the braking, as much as our car requires.

"And I think we understood very quickly, what the issue was in terms of exploiting all the speed.

"And understanding this is good, in a way we could model this aspect, which means then you know what to do in terms of working on the simulator, working in terms of coaching the driver to some aspects.

"And so this is in hand, and this is understood. But in F1 the progress that we see is not necessarily like a switch from race to race."

Stella points out that the current lack of testing, combined with shorter practice sessions on Friday in 2021, has made Ricciardo's life harder. He hasn't had much chance to focus solely on resolving his own driving style issues as there's always the bigger picture of a race weekend.

"Sometimes I make the example of a musician," says Stella. "You can tell him how to play a guitar, you can use a lot of theory, but at some stage, you will have to spend quite a lot of time with the guitar and make quite a lot of exercise.

"And you don't necessarily take a step in a concert, most of the progress you make you make it when you work in the background at home, and you spend hours and hours exercising.

"One aspect, which I don't hear enough about, is that in current F1, it is not easy to exercise. Winter testing was to a minimum in 2021, and on Friday, you have one hour less to practice.

"And still it's a practice in preparation for a race, it's not a practice in which you can do some systematic work, of adapting to a car, understanding all the subtleties that are required to operate at the incredibly high level at which F1 drivers operate nowadays.

"And I have to say, and I've been in this business for some time, the level of drivers now is very high. The number of drivers that can drive at a very high level is considerable, compared to what I have seen previously."

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

So why has the focus been on Ricciardo adjusting to the car, rather than the team changing it to suit his requirements?

"F1 cars are in a way objects that are relatively far from normal cars," says Stella. "Because their performance is entirely dominated by the aerodynamic delivery.

"Then you work with suspensions, you work with other mechanical aspects, but those aspects are very often compensation or integration of what is the leading parameter, which is the aerodynamic delivery of the car, at the various attitudes – the attitudes being the front ride height, the rear ride height, the yaw angle, the roll angle.

"This is what causes the car to be strong in a straight line, and to be less strong as soon as you generate some yaw angle or rotation of the car.

"At the same time, when I talk about aerodynamics, this is definitely what leads to these characteristics. But it's also quite difficult to fine tune these, because to generate the aerodynamic forces, you need a very established flow structure.

"And it takes months and months or years and years of development to consolidate these structures, such that you can achieve the aerodynamic efficiency of the current F1 car, which is absolutely astonishing and never matched in the past by any F1 car.

"When you embed these characteristics so deeply, it is difficult to change them. So then it's easier to work with mechanical aspects. But even those aspects are relatively limited because of homologation in 2021. So you find yourself relatively stuck, I would say.

"And that's why a lot of the requirement and a lot of the demand shifts on the driver side. This is the tool, it's quick, but it needs to be driven in a certain way. There's not much we can do at the moment.

"So while we can improve the aerodynamic efficiency, it is a lot more difficult to improve some of the characteristics we need to [suit] driving style."

An obvious question is for how many seasons has McLaren been going in this direction? Stella admits it's one that the team has asked internally.

"We've been scratching our heads, how long do these characteristics go back in time? How much have we embedded some of the characteristics?

"I speak a lot about aerodynamics, but that's where the forces come from, essentially. And, indeed, I think it goes back to some seasons before the current season.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"So in a way, it's a McLaren set of characteristics in terms of how the car delivers the aerodynamic forces which is not new to this year's car. This year's car is a close sister of last year's car, and there's certainly a close relationship to the [2019] car.

"So in a way, it has to do with the methodology which can produce quick cars – I guess we all agreed on that one – but with some characteristics, let's say.

"I don't want to say too much about these characteristics, because even if we are changing dramatically the technical regulations [for 2022], because this is so embedded, certainly at McLaren we have an objective of we want to improve some of these characteristics in the future. Because they might have to do with some of our methodological aspects.

"So it's a wider reflection that we are going through, it's not only about the 2021 car. But in general it is no mystery when we look at the GPS overlays, which are available to all the teams.

"There are some cars that can generate a lot of their lap time in a corner, and there are some cars that can generate a lot of the lap time, for example, in the straight line part of braking.

"So these aptitudes of the car associated with these two phases is quite different. In braking your straight line characteristics are more important. In the middle of a corner, if you take a corner like Turn 2 in Hungary, it's such a long corner, so the car spends quite a long time in a lateral demand.

"And then it's always difficult in F1 to find something that lends from a development point of view, these two things, and you get a car that is good on both.

"Normally when you get a car that is good on both, then it means you are potentially one of the top two cars."

Stella stresses that this ongoing challenge of juggling the strengths of the car is certainly not unique to McLaren.

"In a way going back to my days at Ferrari, I think there were seasons in which the car was pretty much experiencing similar characteristics.

"It's always a bit difficult to find the right blend between having a car that is strong in each corner, and maintaining good characteristics in straight line and high-speed.

"Conversely, if you focus your car on a straight line and high-speed, then it becomes a bit difficult to maintain the good aerodynamics in the middle of the corner. I think this is very typical, it's not a McLaren specific.

"What is McLaren specific is that our car clearly is on one side of this typical split of characteristics that you can achieve."

Ricciardo's struggles may be providing the team with an unexpected challenge, but Stella stresses that there are still plenty of positives associated with his presence.

"We do see progress step-by-step," he says. "And we also see the race craft of Daniel, which is very complete. So if anything, the key bit we need to add at the moment is that little bit of speed.

Andrea Stella, Racing Director, McLaren

Andrea Stella, Racing Director, McLaren

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

"But the starts, understanding of the racing, the way he's been so precise in keeping some bigger cars behind him, like if we think about [Silverstone] with Carlos, this race craft is very strong.

"And then there is the attitude, the attitude is very positive, exactly what we see and what you know about Daniel, which means even when we are not achieving the speed that we would like, the spirit is strong, the motivation is very high.

"And somehow we keep enjoying the journey. Not necessarily in my experience, a driver who cannot find the final one tenth of a second, keeps being an enjoyable driver to work with for the whole team, let's say.

"But this is the case with Daniel. So I'm very optimistic for the future."

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