McLaren struggling or sandbagging?

Is the MP4-24 a dog or are McLaren being sneaky?

Is the MP4-24 a dog or are McLaren being sneaky?

Heikki Kovalainen’s McLaren was at the bottom of the testing times today, 2.6s slower than Nick Heidfeld’s BMW.

McLaren haven’t shown much pace in the pre-season build-up so far, and speculation abounds as to whether the MP4-24 is a dud, or whether they’re ‘sandbagging’ to fool the opposition. Let’s put the theories to the test.

The ‘they’re just slow’ theory

After the MP4-24 hit the track for the first time murmurs from Woking suggested the car producing more drag than computer simulations had suggested it would.

The sight of McLaren mechanics conducting flow-vis tests (applying liquid to the car to study how the air moves around it at speed) fuelled suggestions that what they expected from the new car and what they got were not in agreement with each other.

On top of that McLaren have spent most of the tests so far using a 2008-specification rear wing. Was this because of some defect in the 2009 design?

This could be a huge and fundamental setback for the team of the type that plagued Renault in 2007 – the team went from world champions one year to non-winners the next.

The ‘they’re sandbagging’ theory

The problem with testing is it’s hard to find out what each team is doing, and how much fuel they’re running with. At F1 Insight yesterday Steven Roy had heard a rumour that Kovalainen was persistently backing off to avoid setting quick times in Spain.

The theory that McLaren were hiding their pace is bolstered by a story on Autosport drawing attention to McLaren’s radical new floor arrangement (not shown in the picture above). Craig Scarborough explains:

A triangular section of floor is missing between the forward part of the floor, which follows the curve of the sidepods, and a squared off edge just ahead of the diffuser. [...]

A diffuser creates its downforce at two points: firstly at the kick-line between the diffuser/floor, then secondly at its leading edge. By effectively moving this leading edge backwards, McLaren are also moving the downforce it creates towards the rear. This may be part of a McLaren strategy to focus downforce production on the front wing and diffuser, as both devices are efficient at creating downforce with little drag.

This in turn could explain why McLaren have been using their 2008 wing for so long. The team had said they were using it to ‘simulate 2009 downforce levels’: so perhaps they were expecting to get a lot more downforce from the final configuration including the shaped rear floor and final specification rear wing?

Lewis Hamilton will be hoping it’s the latter – or his world championship title defence might not last very long.

Are McLaren stealthily playing down the performance of their car? Or are they set for another uncompetitive season as they had in 2004 and 2006? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image (C) www.mclaren.com

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157 comments on McLaren struggling or sandbagging?

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  1. Robert McKay said on 9th March 2009, 22:42

    I think they’re sandbagging. But Mclaren do have the ability to go all Jekyll and Hyde on us, so I’m not entirely confident that they’re not sandbagging.

  2. SoLiD said on 9th March 2009, 22:44

    It’s very hard to tell!
    Or they know they are way ahead or they do have a problem.
    But I think it’s more a problem..

    Remember BMW having problems at the tests last year, that went right in the end :)

  3. Kester said on 9th March 2009, 22:55

    I don’t think Scarborough was alluding to them sandbagging. Whether it was always part of the plan of not wouldn’t be classed as sandbagging, as all the teams have plans to bring new parts to the car between launch and first race.

    I think McLaren have a fundamental lack of rear end grip with their 09 package, and are having to work overtime to correct it, I can’t see any other reason for using an 08 wing for so long. Even if the plan was this new floor, and a revised rear wing, surely you’d want to make sure you had some kind of backup that works, and it legal, just in case your update isn’t all you expected it to be.

    /2 cents

  4. Well they have run the 09 wing haven’t they? Perhaps they did all the testing they could with it. If the floor is making that much difference they wouldn’t be able to test setups without it, but with the 09 wing.

    I would be surprised if they are really far off it, but…

  5. Damon said on 9th March 2009, 23:18

    I want to see Hamilton struggling with the car for once. His F1 career has been to easy so far.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 9th March 2009, 23:23

      I take it you didn’t think much of his first team mate then? Looked pretty handy to me…

    • Sri said on 10th March 2009, 4:25

      @Keith

      I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on this one Keith. The team was firmly backing up their man (not both men), yep read it as Hamilton. Even James Allen acknowledged this in one of his interviews to F1Racing who is a ginormous Hamilton fan. He went on to suggest that the other “handy” guy could have gone on to win if Macca got things right.

    • John H said on 10th March 2009, 8:24

      I definitely don’t think ‘easy’ is the word… but I do agree that it would be interesting to see him with a midfield car.

    • I couldn’t agree more – it would also have been good to see Hamilton start his career in a Spyker or Super Aguri, like most of his contemporaries.

      I still think it is too easy too label him as a super-star talent, when several of his less fortunate rivals have not been given the same opportunities.

      Retrospectively, one cannot say that Alonso was supported as vociferously as Hamilton in 2007, as I am sure he would have been a quadruple champion by now.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th March 2009, 19:16

      “It would also have been good to see Hamilton start his career in a Spyker or Super Aguri, like most of his contemporaries.”

      I don’t understand this idea that new drivers have to start in low-end teams for some reason. Hamilton had, what, nine consecutive podiums in his first nine races? It’s not as if anyone else in the top teams did better over those races.

      Whatever gets said about how Alonso was treated at McLaren the fact remains he had the same car as Hamilton and they ended up with the same number of points. Hamilton more than adequately acquitted himself at McLaren in 2007, and suggesting he would have been better off at Super Aguri is just plain wrong.

    • That is absolute rubish. You make a poor assumption here – that teams pick and sign drivers for reasons other than skill, hence why it is ‘unfair’ that Hamilton lands in a top car while other drivers such as Glock or whoever else never get the ‘opportunity’.

      This is complete nonsense. There is plenty of data outside of F1 race results to judge a driver on, not least testing and lower formula. It was based on these results that McLaren were confident enough to sign a rookie – they thought (and it turned out they were right) that he was that good. I have no doubt that if Glock et al had equal talents then their skills would be in demand from the top teams.

      These rubbish theories are just Hamilton bashing (and I am by no means a top fan – I am actually a Webber fan, so if anybody had a reason to bitch about not being given chances it would be me for Webber)

    • Sri said on 11th March 2009, 6:41

      @Keith
      “Whatever gets said about how Alonso was treated at McLaren the fact remains he had the same car as Hamilton and they ended up with the same number of points.”

      Mate, if you think about it, Barrichello or any other driver who was a team mate of Schumacher, should have won as much as Schumacher. The fact is, they didn’t. They had the same car but not that support. McLaren aren’t so fair afterall, just ask DC about how he feels when he was asked to give way to Mika Hakkinen.

  6. KAB said on 9th March 2009, 23:30

    Wouldn’t be a suprise if they have a poor season… Look at the past few seasons…
    2000 – Good Season,
    2001- Average season,
    2002- Poor season,
    2003 – Good season,
    2004 – Horrible season,
    2005 – Quite good season,
    2006 – Poor season

    To be honest I was suprised they weren’t rubbish in 2008.

    • to suggest that there are patterns in performance is rubbish. may as well ask the stars or a fortune teller who will win the championship.

    • Keith – I should have added the caveat – ‘interesting’ to see him in a back of the grid car.

      It will certainly be interesting to see if he can win against the odds in a mid-field McLaren. I’m sure we’ll all be waiting with baited-breath to see ‘our man’ do it.

      Or maybe not.

  7. patrickl said on 9th March 2009, 23:32

    What’s the point of sandbagging this close to the first race? Somehow I would imagine that if they are sandbagging this would make their test data unreliable. It just doesn’t make sense.

    I’d say they messed up the 2009 car and are designing a new rear wing. Until that arrives they are using the time they have to test other things. Like 2010 tyres, KERS or whatever.

    Hopefully for McLaren, they will get it fixed this test or maybe (if they are even going) for the next test in Jerez.

    • Whewbacca the Cookie said on 10th March 2009, 8:43

      Agree. If today’s date was Jan 1st I’d have said they were sandbagging. When the season opener is less than three weeks away there is no point in not showing your true strength. Perhaps they are testing some secondary systems and collecting data that is purely function-oriented, not performance-based.

  8. Mouse_Nightshirt said on 9th March 2009, 23:32

    Struggling – too much work is going on to fix a “healthy” wing.

  9. F1Yankee said on 9th March 2009, 23:37

    now that the sport has reached a level of parity exceeding the ford-cosworth era, i really doubt mclaren could produce a pig.

    as for the 2008 wing, i have no idea. they might keep their secret until melbourne. any advantage is an advantage. remember, mclaren committed $10M of aero refinement into the brazilian gp, the last race of the aero era.

    • Phil said on 10th March 2009, 11:06

      That $10M didn’t really do all that much for them, did it? It’s Interlagos – you’ve got two options, high downforce for the windy section, or low downforce to overtake at one of the only places you can – end of the pit straight.

    • “It’s Interlagos – you’ve got two options, high downforce for the windy section, or low downforce to overtake at one of the only places you can – end of the pit straight.”

      and off course most aero investment is about finding the perfect compromise between the two. its not a binary option like you make out (otherwise it would be very boring and they wouldn’t have to spend tens of millions)

  10. What I love about computer simulations is that they’re so often proved wrong when the car hits the track. We see this again and again in F1 and we’ll see even more of it now that testing is so severely restricted. It’s what happened with the BMW F1.08 last year and it looks like a repeat with the McLaren MP4-24. No one sandbags to that extent.

    Anti-McLaren fans should not celebrate just yet, however. That team has the resources to identify the problem quicker than most and the car will be reasonably competitive at the least. Hamilton might have to try harder in the early races, that’s all.

  11. Keith, I think Damon meant that Lewis has had very good cars so far, so atop of fighting with a hard teammate (Alonso), it would be nice to see him fighting against his own car too.

  12. Luigismen said on 9th March 2009, 23:48

    I’m a mclaren fan, so I hopefully think they are sandbagging, but, what I really think it’s that they are having some kind of trouble with the rear end of the car (rear wing) because I’ve never seen in 7+ years that a team uses that paint to evaluate air flow on track, it’s just rare.
    I hope they can fix all in time for melbourne

    • Phil said on 10th March 2009, 11:07

      The air flow paint tests can be read 2 ways: they have a problem that wasn’t flagged with their CFD or wind tunnel tests OR they want to make sure their CFD and wind tunnel are calibrated properly so they can introduce devastatingly effective parts during the season with little to no testing involved.

    • Phil you were right on the second guess. With limited on-track testing, it comes down to making CFD and wind-tunnel (to less of an extent) as accurate as possible. What they do is they take photos of the cars and scan the paint lines and input them into their CFD models. The models don’t work unless you have real-world data. There are a lot of formulas and mathematic models in CFD, but there are many variables used as input that require as accurate figures as possible because the variance is huge. Hence the tests.

      That is why despite all the improvements in computer models you still need real-world data to not only complement the data, but as essential inputs in the computation process.

    • In addition, some of the team can now test individual components using their computer models. This means that instead of testing every permutation of this and that wing or winglet, you test a single component with other known quantities, and take the data and import it into the system. This allows you to then find the most optimal setup and layout for each track.

      McLaren testing with a 2008 rear-wing has nothing to do with that component, it means they are testing another part of the car. They need to use the known quantities to get raw results for whichever part they are testing – so that they can use their data in simulations.

      I don’t know why people are surprised that the car is 3sec slower when they are basically running a butchered hybrid for the sake of collecting data. Once they have all they need, they will throw all the good stuff together and probably already know within 0.001 of a second what time they are going to run in Melbourne. Expect them to come out blistering.

      Just judging from what McLaren are doing in testing (component testing rather than full shake-downs) shows that they have more advanced systems and are a step ahead at the moment in terms of using technology. 2008 won’t be a repeat of 98 but it wont be too far off either.

  13. Daks said on 9th March 2009, 23:48

    Mclaren have a history of On-Off years:
    2001 FASTISH
    2002 SLOW
    2003 FAST
    2004 SLOW
    2005 FAST
    2006 SLOW
    2007 FAST
    2008 FAST

    2008 should have been a “SLOW” year going by their recent history, but they won the WDC… Does this mean 2009 will be bad???

    • Agreed. They are out of sequence for their ‘bad’ year.

      I sincerely hope that they are just sandbagging, as I’d love to see a few – maybe more – teams fighting it out this season.

      Imagine – a season with Macca, Ferrari, Renault & BMW-Sauber all capable of winning races. Bliss !

  14. Ian Bryant said on 9th March 2009, 23:54

    This is all opinion. I think for sure that testing has not been close to straight forward as they would have liked, but McLaren are a team with enough depth to avoid that being a problem come, worst case scenario, race#3. They do seem fairly reliable, if they’ve been playing with kers as much as they say then their’s should be decent. The thing I’m looking out for are the times this week, McLaren haven’t had a “strong” performance in any test using any 09 config so far. I think that if they show a glimmer at any point this week then sandbagging or problem solved but if still no stand-out performance then they might be set for a poor start to the season/year. Like I say, all opinion but this week must yield some (possibly cryptic) answers?!

  15. Steven Roy said on 9th March 2009, 23:57

    I think that McLaren like other teams are working on a copy of the Williams/Toyota diffuser. This will give them a lot more downforce. Rather than test now with reduced rear downforce and collect a load of data that will be useless as soon as they get the diffuser ready they have chosen to simulate the new rear downforce by running a 2008 wing. Of course I could be wrong.

    I expect McLaren to have the fastest car in Melbourne.

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