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?

  1. Avto said on 9th March 2009, 23:57

    Somehow I doubt a new floor design can turn a team from zero to hero in modern F1. Thing is we don’t know what they are testing and a top team like McLaren will not go down that easy. I do believe the car is not as fast as they have hoped for and they might have some little problems(which team doesn’t). The new floor thing might be true, but I doubt other teams won’t notice something like that and even if it does boost performance it will not be enough, if the car is as slow as it has been during some of the tests.

  2. Nick said on 10th March 2009, 0:17

    sandbagging no doubt.

  3. Dr Jones said on 10th March 2009, 0:27

    I think they’re struggling. If you look at their MP4-24, it’s a very beautiful car – they concentrate more on the aesthetics and have their aerodynamics secondary. Would they take the risk in sandbagging now that the season is only a few days away with a new wing & body set-up?

  4. Dane said on 10th March 2009, 0:27

    Maybe they should call Alonso for some tips :)
    Mclaren will be a front runner this year, they’re too professional to fall behind

    • Phil said on 10th March 2009, 11:09

      They’ve done it before, look at the fiasco that was the MP4-18 – most expensive development of an F1 car up to that point and it never really raced!

  5. Ian Bryant said on 10th March 2009, 0:44

    Regarding the Toyota and Williams’ diffuser replcation, I remember Sam Michael saying two days after Williams’ launch that he noticed three teams that have conservative diffuser designs that could ‘conveniently’ accomodate the structure that Toyota/Williams launched with, assuming McLaren was one of the three then they already had it designed to some extent

  6. Ian Bryant said on 10th March 2009, 0:46

    And lol at “Sandbagging No Doubt”. Who are you, Renaults cfd computer?!

  7. Timbo said on 10th March 2009, 1:01

    I think McLaren are having trouble. Surely you don’t spend that much time testing with a wing that bears no relation to what you’re going to have to race with unless things have gone seriously amiss betwixt wind tunnel and track. McLaren have the resources and ability to turn things around quickly, but I don’t believe they’ll have it fully sorted in time for Melbourne.

    Hamilton has a reputation for being hard on his rear tyres, and if the reputed problems with a lack of grip and excessive rear tyre wear are to be believed, then it may be a frustrating start to the season for Messrs. Hamilton and Kovalainen…

  8. Obvious sandbagging, heh, 4 seconds slower almost all day today? then last few laps they gain 2 seconds, strange..

    Also Hamilton saying that Mclaren are far behind etc, why would he say this when he allways like’s to think he has a psycological edge over his advisories? Seems a bluff to me.

    I think there sandbagging no other team is that drastically far behind on the teamsheets.

    -on another note, BRAWNGP, looking amazing for there first test!

    • S Hughes said on 10th March 2009, 10:22

      I think you are wrong. Lewis doesn’t strike me as a dishonest person. They are in trouble, pure and simple. I wish it were not so.

  9. Polak said on 10th March 2009, 1:24

    There is also a possibility that they are confident with their equipment and are now testing aspects of the car that are not so obvious.

    I would rather think that they are behind and struggling. BMW needs to shine in Melbourne. If they don’t, it will make them look pretty bad. They nearly abandoned Kubica’s F 1.08 when he had a great chance for success and turned their efforts to 09. Now its 2009 and they need to prove strong. Ferrari and McLaren were battling hard while others were thinking of 09

  10. JohnBt said on 10th March 2009, 1:58

    Sandbagging at this moment so close to the first race. Why didn’t they sandbag during the 2007 and 2008 test season. This sandbagging thingy is just to save face or should I say a ‘cover-up’. In F1 when testing don’t work out well “sandbagging” is the key word, I guess, pretend to be confident. Anyway, this is a chance for Hamilton to proof his worthiness with a lesser car. In 16 days we will know the truth. BrawnGP did well in their first test.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th March 2009, 19:18

      Bringing up Brawn GP is interesting – surely they’re not going to be quicker than (fellow Mercedes users) McLaren at Melbourne? That gives me cause to think McLaren must be a lot quicker than they’ve looked.

  11. Uppili said on 10th March 2009, 2:34

    I read somewhere that the Mclaren rear wing is not working as it should and is essentially stalling the aerodynamics at the rear of the car. Which is why they have been using 2008 spec wings in the tests. It seems they have tried 3 different versions of rear wing in the previous test and it didn’t seem to work. Its a believable theory given the circumstantial evidence.

    I am sure though that the Mclaren car would be alright come Melbourne or at worst when they are back in Europe after the flyaways. This car will surely win races. But if it starts the season off the pace, Lewis can forget defending his title given how competitive other teams are.

  12. todd said on 10th March 2009, 2:41

    I’m no fan of mclaren, but I’d say they are sandbagging, I’d like to see them behind on development but the mclaren technical team are some of the smartest around, so I doubt they are struggling, at worst, just a few small issues, nothing that wont keep them from challenging wins

    • MacademiaNut said on 10th March 2009, 15:40

      Even Force India was not 2 seconds off the pace in 2008 racing. Given current technologies and their understanding by the teams, I would be surprised if any team is 2 seconds off the top pace. So, my guess is that McLaren is definitely sandbagging here. I am sure we will see a lot of new things during Friday testing at Melbourne.

  13. Eduardo Colombi said on 10th March 2009, 3:07

    I did not see Hamilton’s crash, but don’t you think that it could be a sign of McLaren’s problems? was he using 08′ wing? Houston, i think we have a problem…

  14. Senor Paz said on 10th March 2009, 3:24

    The tragedy here is that either way it is bad news for F1 fans in general: if McLaren is hiding their game (which I find extremely unlikely considering the drastic reduction in testing time) then they must be exceptionally confident in their car, which means 2009 will be a one horse season (well, we’d get to see Lewis x Heikki, but something tells me it wouldn’t be very exciting).

    On the other hand, if they truly have a problem of this magnitude then McLaren fans might have to live with a season of playing catch-up. If that’s the case, let’s hope that another team (maybe more!) take the challenge to Ferrari.

    • Phil said on 10th March 2009, 11:12

      McLaren being slow wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the racing…some of the best racing has been when incredibly gifted drivers haul a dog of a car to finishing positions they, in all honestly, had no right being in!

      Senna was famous for this.

    • Senor Paz said on 11th March 2009, 2:25

      Of course, that goes without saying (don’t worry, being brazilian I remember Senna very well indeed).

      My point is that I hope to see a season with a few top teams (hopefully 2 or 3) challenging each other, rather than a season with an absolute stand out team and others fighting for the scraps. Even the great Senna couldn’t take the challenge to the Williams’ in 1992-93 simply because their car was significantly superior.

    • Robert said on 11th March 2009, 22:35

      Well If not Mclaren then I hope BMW or Williams take it to Ferrari

  15. Gman said on 10th March 2009, 3:31

    Hard to believe that McLaren would be truly struggling with all the resources the team has. While they may not be in a true “struggle” , I think the 2008 rear wing useage indicates they have some problems that aren’t sorted out yet. Obviously, if that’s the case, they need to get their act in order ASAP.

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