Monday, June 20, 2011

McLaren have Red Bull in their sights

What a difference a year makes - not just for Silverstone, with its grand prix future guaranteed well into the next decade, but for McLaren, Formula 1's championship leaders at the midway point of the year.

From the depths of the 2009 early season debacle - when Lewis Hamilton was lapped here and struggled in third last - the Woking-based team now believe they could be on the verge of seizing the title initiative if their new exhaust-blown diffuser performs on track as expected.

For the first time in 2010, team insiders are targeting pole position on merit.
Hamilton's qualifying success in Canada last month owed much to circuit-specific characteristics - their extra F-duct-inspired straight-line speed worked to the MP4-25's advantage.

This weekend, however, McLaren have arrived at their home race, around the new Silverstone layout, with their "biggest upgrade of the season" as one engineer put it to me. They anticipate their first genuine challenge to Red Bull (pioneers of the 2010 blown diffuser) in Saturday's qualifying hour.

"If it (new diffuser) works, it'll be amazing," said one insider.

But is it really worth that much, I asked, mindful of how Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner and McLaren managing director, Jonathan Neale, had downplayed its impact?

"Oh yes," I was told. By two separate insiders. "It could make a difference of at least half a second." Both sources couldn't hide their smiles as they made their predictions.

Those words have a familiar ring to them as Red Bull's rivals attempt to catch up with Adrian Newey's brilliant design.

Without doubt, for example, Ferrari made strides at the last race in Valencia when they introduced their first version of the blown diffuser.

They were quickest in Friday practice, produced their strongest qualifying since the opening round in Bahrain and would surely have scored many more points in the race if they had not come unstuck behind the safety car.

Then again, Mercedes came to Spain with similarly high hopes of their diffuser but got burned - literally - because the exhaust gases overheated the suspension at the rear of the car. The team ended up modifying the changes and found themselves compromised on performance.

McLaren were well aware of their rivals' discomfort in the next-door garage in Valencia and their caution was justified during Friday practice.

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Second practice session highlights (UK users only)

Red Bull set the pace in both sessions, Sebastian Vettel in the morning, Mark Webber (in Vettel's cast-off chassis) in the afternoon.
The pair seemed able to exploit their pace at will in response to the rest of the field, with one engineer believing their domination could yet match that of Barcelona in May!

Despite leaving the track twice off the bump at the new Abbey corner, Hamilton and McLaren enjoyed a solid morning workout, second fastest.

But for the afternoon practice, the team changed the suspension on both cars and ended up going slower.

"Disaster" was the muttered verdict from one member of Jenson Button's side of the garage.

My information is that both drivers raised the same complaints about the set-up.

So yet again, McLaren face the prospect of a long night's analysis if they're to achieve the front-line showing they believe the cars are capable of.

Having had no testing apart from a straight-line aero run in Spain, my source had warned, "there are doubts because exhaust gases are so unpredictable. You can't see them. The airflow is so difficult to manage and direct."

The designers have also had to modify the cooling system to accommodate the increased temperatures around the new diffuser.

Changing the level of downforce at the rear of the car calls for changes at the front too, hence the new front wing.

Contrary to Mark Webber's belief that McLaren were sandbagging, one rival engineer claims that actually Ferrari were the team who were disguising their true pace.

The Italian team have brought a second version of their blown diffuser for this weekend.

And both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were lapping consistently on heavy and light fuel loads.

The stakes are getting higher as the season progresses, and both McLaren's ambitious drivers are aware of that.

Hamilton - who won here so memorably in 2008 - and Jenson Button - who is yet to finish on the podium in front of his home crowd - have made clear to the team that they need the new parts, and they need them to work if they are to maintain their momentum in the title race.

Red Bull may not have brought a significant upgrade package for this race - like they've done every other race since the Spanish Grand Prix - but their new diffuser looks to have taken them another step forward.

Two Red Bull engineers I spoke to after Sebastian Vettel's impressive victory in Valencia were adamant that they would repeat their 2009 one-two finish here.

Even allowing for the slower corners on the new layout, Silverstone's abundance of higher speed corners, particularly through Copse, Maggotts and Becketts in the first sector of the circuit, will bring the best out of the RB6.

All of which means Red Bull remain the moving target the rest of the grid is aiming at.

For the moment.

One former technical director with experience at three top teams claimed that the McLaren "steamroller" had the greater resources to maximise their performance over a championship run-in.

And because of that, he had no hesitation in predicting that if McLaren can surprise Red Bull and win on Sunday, they will go on to win the 2010 world championship.


McLaren's decision to abandon the blown diffuser, which they made early evening on Friday, is undoubtedly a setback for their hopes this weekend.

Even worse than the overheating problems caused by the exhaust gases, they have brought a major upgrade to the racetrack and it has not delivered the performance they expected.

That, of course, is in marked contrast to Ferrari's experience in Valencia, when the device worked straightaway - and has added performance to the car at Silverstone this weekend as well.

McLaren now have just one hour's practice to find a balance and a set-up on the car around Silverstone's new layout.

Speaking to two of the team's leading engineers, I'm told they have had to revise their ambitions for pole position but remain hopeful that their new front wing will enable them to challenge Red Bull in the race.

This little hiccup demonstrates the fine margins all teams are working within as they race to develop their cars faster than each other.

The consolation for Hamilton and Button is that if any team can recover from this setback, it is McLaren.


Even with a fully functioning blown diffuser, McLaren would have struggled to find nearly a second's worth of performance on Red Bull, who are as far ahead of their rivals as they were at Barcelona, a circuit with similar demands to Silverstone.

Lewis Hamilton's place on the second row was pure quality, a reflection of driver talent to get the most out of inferior equipment which seemed to defeat his team-mate.

Unless Alonso or Hamilton can make telling moves on the opening lap, it's hard to see Red Bull being beaten on Sunday.

If that's the case, Sebastian Vettel could head for his home race as championship leader for the first time.


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