McLaren are the current surprise package in Formula One. Having begun the season – which celebrates 60 years of McLaren motor racing – with a poorly performing MCL60 F1 car, the team have delivered a remarkable turn around with upgrades brought to the Austrian and subsequent Grand Prix.
After the opening two rounds of the 2023 season McLaren had failed to score with star driver Lando Norris managing just two P17 finishes combined with a retirement and a P15 for rookie Oscar Piastri.
McLaren’s historic turnaround
The Woking based team brought forward a planned upgrade for the MCL60 to the Austrian Grand Prix, but with parts in sparse supply they were fitted only to Lando Norris car.
Norris immediately delivered with a surprising qualifying performance claiming P4 for the Grand Prix start and going one better for the Saturday Sprint event.
Lando’s 12 point haul in the Austrian Grand Prix for his finish just off the podium almost doubled McLaren’s season’s tally accumulated over the first 8 rounds of the season.
The next time out in Silverstone with Piastri now afforded the upgrade too, McLaren dominated the likes of Ferrari, Aston Martin and Mercedes in qualifying with Norris starting the race alongside pole sitter Verstappen and his Australian team mate just one place behind.
Piastri stars at Silverstone
It was to be no flash in the pan Saturday glory followed by Sunday misery for the McLaren duo as Norris finished in second behind Verstappen and but for an unlucky timing of the safety car Piastri would have joined him on the podium but eventually managed P4 behind Hamilton.
Again the haul of 30 points for McLaren at the 2023 British Grand Prix doubled their season’s cumulative score.
Much was made that the MCL60 had performed superbly at two completely different track configurations in Styria and Northamptonshire yet the big test was whether this would continue at the outlier ‘go kart’ style track coming up in Hungary.
With its never ending sequence of medium speed corners and a short main straight again Norris and Piastri performed well in qualifying as they completed the second row of the grid for the Grand Prix.
McLaren “rocket ship” expectations high for Spa
Norris was magnificent again along with Piastri as the pair swept up the inside of Hamilton, the pole sitter, at turn one. The seven times world champion was made to look average as he slipped from first to fourth before the second corner at the Hungaroring.
Lando drove well to finish second in consecutive races, while Piastri struggled with his tyres and faded to fifth at the chequered flag.
Expectations for the “rocket ship” McLaren – as Hamilton has described it – were then high for the upcoming high speed circuit in Belgium this weekend which is expected to play to the strengths of the teams upgraded car. Few teams in Formula One history have completed such a revolutionary improvement in performance with their mid-season car upgrades.
The first glimpse that McLaren were less confident their upgrade is good for the entire range of F1 circuit characteristics came from Lando Norris after his success at the Hungaroring.
Norris cautions MCL60 upgrades incomplete
Speaking to Sky F1’s Racheal Brooks he didn’t believe the circuit in Budapest was dominated by low speed corners as many suggest.
“They’re more slow medium speed corners,” claimed Norris racing questions over whether the upgraded McLaren car has yet to prove itself in genuine low speed turns.
The epic track in the Ardennes Forrest where Formula One will decamp this weekend for the Belgium Grand Prix, is typically described as “high speed” in nature with its long straights and sweeping turns.
But McLaren’s team boss Andrea Stella now cautions that expectations for continued success in Spa-Francorchamps may be premature.
Ferrari low speed traction may eclipse McLaren
Stella claims there are three corners in Spa which are decisively low speed and where a huge amount of lap time can be gained. This could mean the gains McLaren has experienced over the medium high speed recent events may be exposed in Belgium this weekend.
“Even if Spa is normally mentioned as one of the high-speed tracks, in reality, the highest-speed corner, which is corner 10 [Pouhon] is flat in qualifying,” explained Stella.
“There’s a lot of lap time in corner one [La Source] which is [50mph], in corner eight [Les Combes] which is [60mph] and in the last chicane, which is [55mph].”
Stella is concerned about how much time the upgraded McLaren may lose to the likes of Ferrari whose excellent low speed traction has been evident all season.
F1 Sprint weekend just one practice session
There is another curve ball coming McLaren’s way in that they will have just a single one hour practice session to set up their car with its new characteristics before Grand Prix qualifying.
Spa will see the return of the Sprint format where the teams compete for Sunday’s pole position on Friday afternoon. This adds layers of complexity for the teams to fathom when deciding how to set up the car best.
“Spa is a very demanding track in terms of understanding, for instance, your ride heights, because with Eau Rouge, you can’t run too low, because otherwise you would have problems under the car,” Andrea Stella explains.
“So how rapidly you can set up your car can make a difference for the entire week’s performance.”
McLaren F1 upgrade incomplete
The McLaren upgrade programme has delivered the first two stages with the final components expected in Belgium. The team had hoped to complete their schedule in Hungary but last minute design changes and production timescales delayed what may be the team’s final car upgrades for 2023.
The incredible mid season turnaround by McLaren has indeed delivered a car with more downforce and turn in capabilities.
However, Lando Norris claims the MCL60 is still far from optimal and there is even more performance to be unlocked.
Norris: ‘handling far from optimal’
“The car still doesn’t handle anywhere like what I would want from a car. If you said, ‘what do you need from a perfect car?’, I feel like it’s really far away from what I want,” said Norris in Hungary.
“It’s a combination of targeting slow-speed corners and load, and at the same time handling.
“If we can improve both of these together, that’s already pretty much the biggest step we need and we’ll probably take away any weaknesses we have and then we’ll just be strong.”
McLaren close quickly on teams ahead
If Norris’ expectations can be fulfilled, Ferrari and Aston Martin may be looking over their collective shoulders at the fast closing gap between themselves and the Woking based F1 outfit.
In the last three F1 events McLaren have scored 70 points with Piastri impaired in Austria. In comparison Ferrari claimed 45, Aston Martin just 30 and Mercedes somewhat fortunate have accumulated 56 points.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 26, 2023