Today McLaren swung into action to respond to the waves of speculation about their poor testing performance and to manage expectations ahead of the new F1 season. Regular readers of JA on F1 will know that I was in Barcelona this week and reported seeing the difficulties the driver Heikki Kovalainen was having with the car, as well as analysing the lap times for further evidence of problems.
New team principal Martin Whitmarsh went public on Friday with a frank admission that the car is not fast enough and that it has some problems,
“”Initial testing of MP4-24, which first ran with an interim aero package, went in accordance with our early developmental expectations. This week the car has run in Barcelona with an updated aero package, as we had always planned it would, and a performance shortfall has been identified that we are now working hard to resolve, ” he said.
The car, he admits is not quick, “Not at the moment – and certainly not by our team’s extremely high standards.
“But Lewis is the reigning world champion, and he became world champion in one of our cars.” Indeed he did, but he’s not even in the top ten as things stand today.
So now we are clear, McLaren are not sandbagging, they are not trying some innovative new way of testing in light of the season long testing ban, they are in the do-do and the question is, how far off are they and how long will it be before they get out of it?
Answering the first question first, the lap times from this week’s test show progress as the week goes on, but it still leaves the car well behind the pace setting Brawn Mercedes. The fact that that car uses the same engine as the McLaren adds further pain, because there is clearly no weakness there. The engine appears bullet-proof and has class leading performance. Mercedes is not the weak link here. The weak link is the chassis and in particularly the aerodynamics.
The Brawn designers appear to have got the new aero rules spot on, whereas the McLaren guys have lost a link in the chain somewhere. Inevitably it has come from the effort that went into winning last year’s championship – think back to the famous $4 million front wing they brought to Interlagos, for example. Ferrari had the same pressure on them, but they seem to have got the 2009 package more sorted and not lost ground to their challengers, like BMW.
The engineers I spoke to believe that McLaren’s problem is more likely to be in the diffuser area, but could also be in how the air is reaching the diffuser under the car. It might be related to the rear wing, but the changes of rear wing could equally be about trying to calm the effect of the diffuser issues. I’m no aerodynamicist and I don’t pretend to understand the science in the slightest. But that is what I heard from people who do.
Looking at the lap times from Wednesday and Thursday, Hamilton doesn’t do any long runs, 10 laps is his maximum and the car runs in the 1m 22s and high 1m 21s. It’s very hard to guess how heavy the car is when they did this run, as 10 laps worth of fuel is only about 25 kilos, so the car could have had another 30 on board at the end of the run or just fumes.
Generally I would expect them to have a total of around 40 kilos in the car as a reference for their tests. They were not doing long runs or race distance tests, where you’d expect to use 50 kilos per 20 lap stint.
Toyota’s Timo Glock does a 20 lap run the same day where most of his laps are in the low 1m 21s, so substantially faster.
Lewis sets his fastest time on Thursday, a 1min 20.869, on the first flying lap of a five lap run. In a comparable length run Williams’ Nico Rosberg does a 1m 19.774 lap, which looks like a qualifying simulation and Felipe Massa does a 1m 20.677 as part of a 10 lap run.
The Brawn meanwhile is on another planet, doing a 20 lap run in the low 1m 21s and high 1m 20s, with a best time on low fuel in the 1m 18s.
The BMW is interesting, Kubica does a 1m20.740 on the fourth lap of a 21 lap run, so no attempt at a low fuel lap for him. I still think they are faster than they look at the moment.
So looking for a reliable yardstick, it looks like the McLaren is a good second off the pace of Ferrari, perhaps more. They will bring a fix to Jerez next week and that will be a huge week for them, the last chance to track test new parts before Melbourne. We will see their pace relative to Brawn and Williams there, which will make the picture clearer.