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Why McLaren still has high hopes for F1 2023

On the face of it, the Bahrain Grand Prix was a disaster for the McLaren Formula 1 team both in terms of pure pace and the overall outcome of the weekend.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

The cars started from 11th and 18th, with Lando Norris making a series of pitstops and finishing two laps down and Oscar Piastri retiring early. One event into the season and McLaren is officially last in the constructors' championship.

It was not a great start by any measure for a team that has set fourth place as a minimum achievement in 2023. However, while the reliability issues were painful, there is light at the end of the new Woking wind tunnel.

That's because the team knows it has performance coming that it can bolt onto the car from the fourth round of the season in Azerbaijan, with more to follow after that, thanks to a change in philosophy made last year.

And once the new tunnel is up and running in June, it should allow the team to make a significant step forward in terms of the effectiveness of its aero programme as the 2024 project starts to take shape.

In contrast to the apparent disarray at Mercedes and Ferrari, McLaren has a quiet confidence about it. The success that Aston Martin had over the winter in making a giant leap in aero performance serves as inspiration.

The danger of relying on an upgrade package is that when the new bits do come they don't make a dramatic difference relative to rivals who are also making progress. However, for the time being McLaren is prepared to take the heat of a sub-par performance.

"I think we're where we thought we'd probably be," says technical director James Key. "It's really tight, to be honest with you, with a slightly better or worse lap it could have gone one way or the other in quali.

"We knew we were several tenths off where we needed to be, and there is good reason for that. It's not just sitting back and taking it easy over the winter, everyone's worked incredibly hard."

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

While the focus is on the changes for race four, Key is adamant that even in its current spec the MCL60 has shown some encouraging signs.

"There's a lot of new bits on this car, they've actually worked pretty well," he says. "A lot of the things that we wanted to encourage learning from what we did last year, looking at our strengths and weaknesses, that has come through pretty well. It's a much better balanced car.

"Also the mechanical updates seem to be working, and our tyre management is better. So I think all of those sides work pretty well. None of those has been compromised, or a nasty surprise."

McLaren's change of aero direction was prompted by a new rule for 2023 that had a bigger impact than the team had originally anticipated.

"Where this happened actually is when we took the 15mm floor step," says Key. "We all agreed that as a porpoising protection, which was very sensible given at the time last year, that was still quite a major issue. It began to improve for everyone as things improved during the year.

"That sounds very small, but these floors are huge and incredibly sensitive. Look at how much downforce it generates. So when we did it on our car, it actually gave us a much bigger loss than anticipated. It seems to have affected different teams in different ways.

"To a certain extent, it seems to be related to the floor edge geometry that you're running at the time."

The late decision to change tack explains why the team has been so keen to point out that we won't see the real MCL60 until the fourth race.

In PR terms, it wasn't easy to make it clear at the launch that the "real" car wouldn't be ready until race four – it implied perhaps that the team hadn't got its act together. In fact, it was just a function of when that big call was made.

"It wasn't like we were dawdling around and thinking what to do, and actually why don't we do this," says Key. "It was sort of forced upon us by a recognition that the new regs weren't going to recover with what we knew from last year.

"That led to a completely refreshed and revamped approach to that area of the car. It takes a while to develop these things. We tried to get it for race one, but it wasn't mature enough.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Erik Junius

"It would have performed a bit better, but with these floors, you've got to maintain stability, good correlation and everything else to guarantee that it's going work, and it was a little bit risky for race one."

You could argue that a late change of direction is a brave decision to make, and one that Mercedes clearly now wishes it had taken. Key plays down the comparison as in McLaren's case the focus was on the floor rather than the more visibly sidepod package.

"Ours was a floor philosophy rather than a bodywork philosophy," he says. "But I wish it was as simple as we all talk about it. The detail and the complexity of these cars and what the right thing to do is, even at the end of last year, it wasn't obvious.

"We had a team that was dominating. But the team that was really pretty close to them most of the season had completely different philosophies with their bodywork. And they've both maintained that, and they're both still very competitive.

"So working out if there's one right thing to do, it's pretty tricky and to be honest, the Mercedes philosophy, which every team has studied, it's so unique, it's pretty clever, and you can see how punchy it could be. So I completely understand why they chose to go again."

Key makes it clear that the team still has more to find.

"It's got a ton more potential in it than the first iteration we're going to see at race four. We expect to see maybe a further step in Imola. It'll be a step in the right direction, it won't be the whole shebang, there's more to do.

"[Sakhir] is not the best track for us. I think in the upcoming races we'll probably see a little bit of a mix-up, and I'd anticipate us being a little bit more competitive. And because it's so tight, if you've got some updates coming early it can move things around quite quickly."

Confirmation that the Baku spec is just a first step is intriguing, as it indicates that McLaren fans may have to remain patient if the Baku package doesn't immediately propel the team up the grid.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

A solid baseline is always important, especially in the cost cap era, as Aston Martin has also made clear. If you have some firefighting to do with fundamental issues, as most teams had in 2022 as they chased porpoising, resources have to be deployed that should have gone into making the car faster.

The good news for McLaren is that the MCL60 provides that solid starting point and the focus now is purely on lap time.

"Initially it does exactly what we expected it to do," says Key. "And the primary driver comment is just 'give us grip and we can go faster'.

"It's not like you're going to attack this kind of crazy characteristic, or this really annoying thing here or whatever. If you just take the car and just add grip it will naturally go quicker.

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"So it does give us a very clear approach rather than trying to overcome something you don't really understand fully. That helps us, it means we can be very direct in our approach and very clear in our approach to what we're trying to achieve.

"I would still be cautious about talking about updates because you've got to get it running on the car first, and make sure it works.

"But I think if it all comes it'll definitely be a good step, and if we could take the next logical steps that we're already working on in the background, then the hope is the development rate can be pretty competitive. And it needs to be at the moment, with how close everything is."

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