McLaren’s rocketed from the back of the pack to the top of the midfield in just three races, and it’s not all down to the Australian GP track.
McLaren was a surprisingly competent fifth and sixth at the Australian Grand Prix, a marked rise from its lowly start to the season and a welcome relief to local Daniel Ricciardo fans.
The historic team couldn’t have started 2022 at a lower ebb. A brake cooling miscalculation left it unable to complete any long running during the second preseason test, which Ricciardo wasn’t available for anyway thanks to a Covid-19 diagnosis.
At the first race of the season, the Bahrain Grand Prix, those problems compounded to leave the team last of all finishers, woefully the slowest among the 10 teams.
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A step forward was made at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix the following week, but the circuit’s fast-corner composition, contrasting starkly with the slow, traction-dependent corners of Bahrain, hid the MCL36’s weaknesses and promoted its strengths.
And yet in Australia, which was sped up as a circuit this year but still comprised plenty of slow and medium-speed turns, McLaren appeared to improve again. Fourth and seventh on the grid turned into fifth and sixth at the flag, Lando Norris leading home Ricciardo at the head of the midfield — after, mind you, Ricciardo was asked not to pass the Brit late in the race (but more on that later on in this article).
So why does McLaren suddenly look so competitive, and will it continue?
Speaking after his team’s first double points finish of the season, McLaren principal Andreas Seidl identified three key reasons for the improvement.
“We brought some small upgrades here to the car which worked and which helped to increase performance,” he said.
“The track layout obviously suits our current package with a fluent layout.
“Also I think we also simply learnt again about the car in Jeddah and could apply the learnings here, and that in the end put us in more competitive position not just on one lap but also today in the race, and it was simply great to see that we could also show this pace today over the distance.”
Let’s consider them in reverse order.
Practice makes perfect
McLaren’s trajectory has been sharp but exaggerated by just how unrepresentatively poor its Bahrain test and grand prix performances were.
Well known now is that the team miscalculated the cooling requirements for its car ahead of Bahrain, and with the first two races in the desert and the third in a warm Melbourne, it proved a real problem.
An interim solution was brought for the first race, but it left the team badly underprepared and with the worst performing car in the race. Though it’s built on that fix since, it’s still not an optimally working part, and the front brake ducts are understatedly important to conditioning airflow to the rest of the car.
But the brake debacle had further knock-on effects for this early phase of the season too, depriving the team of the chance to do any kind of long running due to overheating concerns, sending it into the campaign proper partially blind to its car’s potential and problems.
It’s only now that the season is underway that it’s clocking up enough laps to get a deep understanding of how the car works.
“Even with the increased testing we had this year, the two tests again, it’s just not enough to be a bulletproof,” Seidl said. “And in addition, on our side we lost a lot of laps in Bahrain, which was obviously not the ideal start in terms of proving everything out as well.
“Obviously with these cars still being quite new, with the tyres being a bit of a different specification as well compared to the past, there’s still a lot we need to learn also in terms of what you can actually do with these tyres over the race distance.
“I think [the drivers] in the end extracted everything that was possible to extract today from our car, and I’m obviously very happy with that.”
A favourable track
Then of course there’s the circuit layout, which played more into its hands certainly than the Bahrain International Circuit.
Previously Albert Park was all about good traction out of slow chicanes, but the widening work undertaken last year has made it more about carrying medium speed through the bends and holding steady on the flat-out but downforce-dependent blast from Turn 6 to Turn 9.
There are the kinds of corners the McLaren car prefers, with its generally underdeveloped aerodynamics depriving drivers of confidence in the slower stuff.
“If you look at the overlays from Bahrain, we were missing grip performance, which I think you can also see here on the overlays,” Seidl said. “That is where we are weakest compared to the top cars.”
Though he added that he’d seen enough through the weekend to be confident the car was now at a minimum in the top half of the field.
“In the end a result like today is just great motivation for everyone in the team to keep working hard because we obviously have a realistic picture of where we are with our car at the moment,” he said.
“I think we’re in a position to moving forward now with the current package to fight for top 10 results, which is a step forward compared to where we were at the beginning of the season.
“But it’s obviously not where we want to be as a team, and so heads down, let’s not get over excited and let’s work very hard.”
Early upgrades do the trick
The final piece of the puzzle is updates brought to the car. Small upgrades brought to Melbourne pushed the MCL36 a little further up the road, but McLaren will have to work faster than the rest to catch up while its rivals are also trying to make their cars faster still.
“It was obviously important after realising that we are lacking performance that we did as quickly as possible analysis and the studies to work out how we can improve performance as quickly as possible,” Seidl said. “I’m very happy saying that we have a clear plan in place now of what we need to do with the car in terms of make steps in terms of performance.
“This could take a bit of time, so we need to be patient despite all the ambition. But the most important thing is we have a clear plan that we execute on.
“It’s an ongoing process. You see also how the pecking order is changing from one race to the next one, which obviously if you look here at the Haas or Alfa Romeo, they definitely struggled a lot more compared to previous weekends. But we are clear where the weaknesses are and what we have to address.”
But he refused to put a time line on it. Not only is the team aiming for a moving target, but the cost cap and a reduction in wind tunnel time means the team will need to be efficient in how it does its work and picky about which upgrades to develop before sinking money on them.
“In terms of when this is happening exactly, I don’t want to go too much into detail,” he said.
“There are obviously different parameters you have to manage when you do that also — there’s a cost cap which you need to consider, there is the limited wind tunnel time also that you have nowadays, which you need to consider, and that’s why you need to somehow manage a bit as well what you’re doing.”
Truth about Ricciardo’s radio message
One thing McLaren seems unlikely to have to worry about this season is its drivers, with Ricciardo so far showing strongly alongside Norris after a ropey season in 2021.
In fact they were so close in performance in Melbourne that Ricciardo had no trouble clinging to Norris’s gearbox through the race after recovering from a lacklustre qualifying — but even this seemed down to a quirk warming up his final set of tyres, having been fractionally ahead of the Briton prior to the final shootout lap.
But eagle-eyed observers would’ve noticed the pair drop markedly off the pace in the final four laps, with Norris slowing by seconds a lap and Ricciardo moving forward from a managed four-second gap to what was practically a formation finish.
“Don’t stay too close to Lando, he may lose power,” he was told over team radio, notifying the Australian of a potential issue with the leading car. “I don’t want you to put him under pressure while everything is okay.”
He was told he could pass only if Norris was unable to continue the race.
But any speculation this was a team order that showed McLaren is somehow favouring Norris is misplaced.
Norris had absorbed pressure from Ricciardo throughout the race and earnt the place, and it’s very much standard practice in a late-race situation to manage the pace of both drivers when there’s nothing to be gained for the team’s collective points haul rather than risk an embarrassing late accident that leaves them with nothing.
With reliability playing such a key role in the championship already, risking a further problem on Norris’s car or the development of a problem on Ricciardo’s car would’ve been potentially devastating so close to the end of the team’s best result of the year.
“I had to control myself a little bit,” Ricciardo told Sky Sports afterwards. “But still P5 and P6 is still a massive result for us. If you had told me in Bahrain this would have happened, I would have laughed sarcastically, so very happy with this progress.
“After Bahrain I was still very positive and I knew we could make a turnaround. I didn’t think it would happen already, so for that reason, I’ll definitely take it.
“The weekend as a whole has been just smoother, smoother for all of us. And we’ve shown a lot more for it.
“The team result was mega compared to the last few.”
It remains to be seen how far up the grid McLaren can get this season, and a title tilt would be unlikely until 2023, but at a minimum things are moving in the right direction again.
Originally published as Truth behind Daniel Ricciardo radio order and McLaren’s surprise F1 turnaround