Features - News Feature
APRIL 4, 2001
McLaren needs a nose job
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
It's been a long time since McLaren-Mercedes made such an unconvincing start to a Formula One season, and even before the team's uncharacteristically lackluster performance in the Malaysian GP at Sepang the alarm bells were ringing in Woking.
Last year, and in the two seasons preceding it, McLaren and Ferrari were pretty much equal. In their title showdown in Suzuka last October, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher slogged it out in both qualifying and the race, separated by mere fractions of a second. But based on their blistering performance in Melbourne at the beginning of March, and again in Sepang a fortnight later, Ferrari has moved ahead of its erstwhile rival. In dominating the Malaysian race, Schumacher and his sidekick Rubens Barrichello could do virtually as they pleased, even though both slid off the track at one stage, and sat motionless in the pits for well over a minute.
McLaren's problem is that it did not test at the same tracks as Ferrari during the winter, so the performance deficit to the Italian team only became apparent in Melbourne. Since the first three races are all 'flyaways', where the cars are flown to the venue rather than taken by road transporter, pure logistics have a significant influence on a team's ability to react quickly.
McLaren team chief Ron Dennis was rather whistling to keep spirits up after qualifying in Sepang when he said: "In last year's race here we were half a second down in qualifying, and half a second up on Ferrari during the race. We picked up a massive speed reversal between qualifying and the race."
It did not happen that way this year. Hakkinen set the race's fastest lap, eventually, but for much of it he was struggling to keep up with Jos Verstappen's Orange Arrows, an unthinkable development even a fortnight earlier. Ironically, the Arrows is powered by an Asiatech V10 engine that it a close relative of the Peugeot engine McLaren turned its back on in 1994.
If it isn't quite crisis time in Woking, the signs are that some major therapy will be needed to nurse McLaren back into its usual potent form.
"We are finding it difficult to accommodate a handling characteristic, but it is a short-lived problem and things will get progressively better over the next few races," Dennis said. "We find that we have a handling imbalance on new tires." But he added, in a thinly veiled reference to German media reports that rival BMW has overtaken McLaren's engine partner Mercedes-Benz in the horsepower stakes, "It is absolute lunacy to say that BMW is king of the castle and that Mercedes-Benz is finished."
Power is the least of McLaren's worries, with more than 840 bhp on tap from the Mercedes V10. What it needs is more downforce. Specifically, the new MP4/16 car needs a new aerodynamic package for its front end, to prevent the car wasting valuable time and momentum understeering into and through corners. Even the latest breed of softer-compound grooved tires promotes understeer, and the nature of the Sepang circuit does likewise, so the McLaren's dislike for fresh tires was certainly a handicap. But David Coulthard, who finished a distant third in Malaysia, suggested that the decision to run on full wet tires, rather than the intermediates chosen by the Ferrari duo, was not the right one at a crucial part of the race.
When the safety car pulled into the pits at the end of the 10th lap, Schumacher was more than 12 seconds adrift of Coulthard, who was at that stage leading. By the 16th lap, as the track died, Schumacher had passed seven cars, including the McLaren. At times he was lapping more than five seconds faster than anyone but his team-mate.
"Irrespective of the fuel level, as you saw this morning in the warm-up there was more than five seconds' difference between the wet tires and the intermediates in the right conditions," Coulthard pointed out. "So if you want to just home in one that one area then all us may as well go home. We may as well stop now. But we know that it's not five seconds difference between Ferrari and the rest of us. I think, as you saw in Melbourne, it was maybe less than half a second; here, to us, it was almost a full second."
That is nevertheless a significant margin in this split second world, an ample deficit to cheer Schumacher in his quest for a fourth world title and a record of victories greater than Alain Prost's current tally of 51.
As long as McLaren cannot add more downforce at the rear, because the front end is too weak and further imbalance would occur, it will struggle. Logistically there is little that can be done until the teams return to Europe after the Brazilian GP. But naturally McLaren is working hard on a new aero package that may be ready for Imola a fortnight later. Failing that, it will appear at the Spanish GP in April when, coincidentally, traction control becomes legal again. Only then may McLaren start to challenge again.
All of this is deeply ironic, for the team's lavish new wind tunnel is about to come on stream at its new Paragon base in Woking, which is itself a year away from completion. At present, however, McLaren uses the British Marine Technology tunnel at the National Physical Research Laboratory in Teddington, and has done for some time. The rumor in the paddock is that some sort of calibration error may have crept in, creating spurious feedback figures. This may be another reason why there is no instant cure, and why McLaren resorted to such (unsuccessful) measures as tacking on nose winglets during practice in Malaysia.
Dennis admits that the two engine failures that afflicted Mika Hakkinen early last season knocked the team's confidence for six and materially affected its World Championship challenge, and the new aerodynamic problem will most likely have had a similar effect on morale. But anyone who writes McLaren off at this early stage does so at their peril. Ferrari is certainly not feeling complacent.