• New raised nose was the focus of the car’s upgrades
• Jenson Button fastest and Hamilton fourth in second practice
McLaren, yearning to reprise their domination in the 1980s, face a defining challenge at the Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday afternoon, with the race in Barcelona marking makeover time for the Formula One cars.
There have been all sorts of nips, tucks and facelifts, as the mechanical plastic surgeons have done their best – as if preparing for the catwalk of Monaco in two weeks’ time. But it is McLaren’s nose job that has been the main issue since the last day in Mugello last week, where the upgrades were tested.
McLaren desperately needed a good start to the year and got it. Anxious not to repeat their mistake of last year, when they started with a dog of a car and had to play catch-up, they went into this season with the best-looking entrant in the paddock and started with a flurry of poles and podiums. But McLaren, who are also unveiling changes to their pit crew and wheel-changing techniques for this race after a disastrous day in the pits in Bahrain last time out, have been reined in.
Lewis Hamilton was eighth in Bahrain and a disconsolate Jenson Button finally retired as McLaren lost their lead in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. Red Bull sit atop both tables, as they have done for the past two years.
That position would not matter except that McLaren have not won a drivers’ title since 2008, and the constructors’ championship has eluded them since 1998. They have a craving need for success, which is why they are one of the teams that has come to Barcelona with a number of upgrades. And it would not be surprising if Hamilton, arguably the outstanding driver of the early season, but dogged by bad luck, had his first win here.
Superficially, at least, McLaren had a good day on Friday. In the second, afternoon, practice session, Button finished fastest, with Hamilton fourth. But those results disguised the fact that Button twice complained of “terrible understeer”, while Hamilton said his gear ratios were too long.
But McLaren’s new raised nose was still the talking point, since it suggests they got their design wrong at the start of the year. All their rivals had started with a nose job but McLaren, a beauty among the beasts, had a cleaner, lower look. So did they make a mistake?
Jonathan Neale, the managing director of McLaren Racing, insisted this is not the case. “We’ve had a quick car out of the box,” he said. “The fact that we put the car on pole in Australia [and won the race] would suggest that we didn’t have our worst winter. We were very pleased with the car and the way it handled, particularly in the high speeds.
“When you look at everybody else’s car, and they’ve all done something different, you do have a sharp intake of breath and you ask yourself ‘Did we miss a trick there?’ But I don’t think we have. And we have brought a reasonable upgrade here. I would be surprised if the nose is more than 20% of the performance improvement we have put on the car this weekend.”
However, Gary Anderson, the BBC’s technical consultant, does feel that the decision not to go with the higher nose, made the best part of a year ago, could come back to haunt the Woking-based team. “I think they have struggled in recent races to get enough front downforce,” he said. “The higher nose will help the front wing work more efficiently and help more airflow under the car.
“It will be better than what they had before. But they won’t recover from not having the higher chassis, which gives you more airflow to work with. And they’re stuck with that unless they make a new chassis.”
What McLaren are also battling – like all the teams – are the difficulties posed by this year’s new batch of Pirelli tyres, with their elusive “sweet spot,” which restricts the use of aggressive driving early in a race. “Everyone is looking after tyres,” said Neale. “If you damage them early on and use up the grip capacity you pay a heavy price for it in the last five laps of that sector.
“Lewis is generally driving very well. But his driving style and more measured approach is a necessity for these tyres. The tyres are so important.”
According to Anderson, the challenge is to get a car’s balance and down-force so organised that it enables the driver to go flat out, even on these tyres.
In this most open of seasons, he has been most impressed by Lotus. “If I had to pick three teams they would be McLaren, Red Bull and Lotus, and I hope that Lotus can spring a surprise. They look good enough to do it. They just have to get a bit of confidence. They can get a little bit spooked on the pit wall.”
McLaren are not spooked. But they will be mightily concerned if they do not reassert themselves on Sunday.