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. Chaz said on 10th March 2009, 8:48

    Interesting theory but personally I’m getting a little concerned with McLaren…

    • Chaz said on 10th March 2009, 9:06

      I know yesterdays test results should not be over analysed but I wonder how much support McLaren will continue offering Brawn GP at this rate…

  2. pankaj said on 10th March 2009, 8:56

    Finally 0.6 seconds are gone.

  3. Smitty said on 10th March 2009, 9:01

    McLaren is sandbagging. Just to be annoying – they will probably win Melbourne.

  4. John Beamer said on 10th March 2009, 9:02

    Personally I think this is a pretty big issue. I suspect it is solvable but it will hurt McLaren for the first four-six races.

    It is very rare in public testing for teams to use Flow-vis paint – gives too much info about flow to competition so that in itself indicates there is an issue. How big an issue we don’t know for sure but looking at tyre wear at the rear end it is clear than back stability is an issue. Running the 2008 wing is try to replicate intended downforce to test the front of the car – probably trying to determine if the issue was at the front of the car. If there is still an issue with the 2008 rear wing attached then that indicates the problem is at the front of the car.

    McLaren may sort out this issue before Melbourne but other teams are focusing on set-up in the current round of testing. Given the testing ban playing catch-up is that much harder. Valuable resources are being used up where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

    Some pundits point to Renault issues in 2007 as a corollary example. Far from it. The Renault issue was a result of a cock-up on rear-forward balance, fundamentally caused by the V-keel approach. The McLaren issue feels aerodynamic.

    I’m willing to bet that neither McLaren will be on the front row for Australia. Any takers?

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

      It is very rare in public testing for teams to use Flow-vis paint

      Haven’t Renault also been using it in public this off-season?

    • F1Yankee said on 10th March 2009, 23:13

      i thought all of the big league race teams used flow-vis all the time.

    • Toby said on 11th March 2009, 1:30

      I won’t take it as a bet because I agree with you.

      For those who think it’s just sand-bagging: just make sure you’re not assuming that Ferrari and the rest are running at full speed and spec. If they aren’t, it could be 3-4 seconds that McLaren need to find in ,what, 16 days? Lifting off on straights or not, that’s a lot of time to find. I’d say there’s definitely a problem, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be in the top ten every qualifying, or be challenging for podiums or even wins at some stage.

      Just because McLaren may not be the fastest this season, doesn’t mean they’ll be the slowest.

  5. ajokay said on 10th March 2009, 9:10

    I think we’ll only know if it’s sandbagging or genuine trouble when it comes to race day.

    Interesting to see McLaren have taken the front wheel hubcaps to a whole new level this year. They stick out to the front edge of the tyres, and look fairly ugly in doing so.

  6. Tim said on 10th March 2009, 9:31

    McLaren does appear to have had some problems with its rear wing. From what I could see, it is the only team to have done significant running with a 2008-spec rear wing on a proper (i.e. not interim) 2009 car. There has also been some speculation that McLaren’s 2009-spec rear wing has been prone to stalling, which would make the handling somewhat difficult.

    However, working through problems like this is what testing is for. BMW Sauber appeared to be struggling in testing last year but were quick straight out of the box in Melbourne. If any team has the resources to be able to understand the problem and work out how to fix it then it has to be McLaren.

  7. Hugo Bourgeois said on 10th March 2009, 9:33

    struggling… I’m too worried about that rear wing element. They should at least have that fixed or used, even… I wonder how their speed has changed, compared to that of the others. Let’s say basis for comparison would be January.

  8. todd said on 10th March 2009, 9:39

    I don’t think they have an issue at all

    “The morning session was spent focusing on longer runs using an existing bodywork package in order to establish an accurate baseline ahead of the evaluation of new parts in the afternoon.”

    just basic testing – not trying to throw down hot times.

  9. I’d love to see McLaren struggling, and I’m a McLaren fan. Thing is, it would give Hamilton a chance to silence all the critics who say that he’s “not that good and only wins because he has the best car”.

    People often say that Schumacher, Senna et al could still win given a car that was less than the best – I’d love to see Hamilton do that this year.

    On the other hand, my primary support has been for Button since he started in F1 and I’m 100% behind the Brawn GP guys this year, so I’d love to see them being the team McLaren have to beat.

    As for any question over how much “support” McLaren will give Brawn GP if they’re being beaten by the customer team. Well it’s simple, they will presumably hand over the engines and have nothing more to do with it…

    Either that or Ross will answer his phone, listen to someone talk and then reply with…

    “What do you mean you want borrow our rear wing..!!”

  10. S Hughes said on 10th March 2009, 9:56

    As a huge LH fan, I am distraught at all this. I think they have problems and I am faced with a 2009 season of despair.

  11. Jay Menon said on 10th March 2009, 9:58

    Oh well, no point debating, we’ll know soon enough if they’ve got what it takes.

    It would be nice if Lewis gets a really sh*t car and does an 08 Alonso, by making it better and winning races. At least he will asnwers his critics.

  12. As a McLaren fan and a pessimist I think they are struggling.
    It’s all very well saying they are going to bring some super secret developments to the last test which will blow the opposition away, but no matter what all the computer and wind tunnel simulations say there is no substitute to actually bolting the pieces on the car and going round the track.

  13. Sandbagging. There is no way the Mclaren is as slow as they are showing. However what if the other teams are sandbagging to?

  14. Joe Jones said on 10th March 2009, 11:14

    I do think that McLaren are hiding their pace to a degree, but I don’t think they would sandbag to that extent, maybe they would mix it with brawn and rbr if they were hiding their true pace. We can’t forget that there is the possibility that most of the other teams are also not doing quali pace. To be so far towards the bottom of the sheet says that they are almost definitely having some issues. The only thing we know for certain though is that no team can be written off at this stage of the year.

    That floor looks awfully close to the rear wheels, doesn’t it? If they have a puncture or tyre delaminating it would be interesting to see whether or not it would tear it apart.

    Talking about tyres, how are McLaren handling theirs?

    Whatever happens, I hope that either Ferrari or Fernando win the championships.

  15. Phil said on 10th March 2009, 11:16

    I find it hard to believe that McLaren are having problems, especially as one of their own is on the Overtaking Working Group who came up with the new aero regs.

    This should have given them a large head-start over the others.

  16. A Singh said on 10th March 2009, 11:45

    I really hope they’re not sandbagging.

  17. I would vote for Struggling.

    The Sand Bagging advocates are pointing to 2008 BMW testing pace. But mind you; BMW admitted later, they were not sandbagging in testing; and the car took a really long time to find its sweet spot.

    Mclaren also seem genuinely slow. I will echo John Beamer’s point of using green paint. A team intent on sandbagging won’t give away air-flow details around their car so freely to other teams.

    But by struggling I mean; below the pace of BMW, Red Bull and Ferrari. They should still be faster than other mid-field teams like Renault, Willimas and others.

  18. breezer said on 10th March 2009, 11:58

    it looks like mclaren are in the thick stuff thinkin of the poor form that blighted them in 04 when they got there new areo super computer and things went totally side ways on them this is mayb 1 of them seasons that macl has from time 2 time look at the car that RBR has bulit and who has designed it macl lost 1 the best ever f1 designer and i thing it shows the first time i seen the car in reminded me off the 96 ferrari that bulbus bubbley look? im not sure but i think sand bagging isnt an option macl have a problem. but they r very good at fixing problems so the first race is deffo goin 2 b intresting roll on the end of march wooohooo!!!!!

  19. Jasper said on 10th March 2009, 13:04

    I agree with ‘breezer’ this year’s McLaren does remind me of the ’96 Ferrari, it looks quite heavy and overly bulky at the front. There doesn’t appear to be anything particurly special or groundbreaking about the design, unlike the Red Bull, which incorporates a lot of clever ideas, like the rear suspension. Or the Renault, although ugly it has a very cleverly designed front nose, which generates downforce on the underside.

    Are they struggling? Well so far in all the testing we haven’t seen anything to suggest that this car is one of the fastest. So I think that says it all really! In previous winter testing, I’ve never really seen them sandbagging before. I remember in ’98 pre-season testing, before the first race it was clear that McLaren had the fastest car, but it didn’t become apparant how much faster it was until the race in Melbourne was over!

    A lot of people seem to think that it’s a given that the McLaren will be one of the fastest cars, but when you look at their form from previous years, their form is really quite patchy. When you compare them to Ferrari, from ‘1997 to ‘2008 they’ve only produced one dud car – the ’05 Ferrari.

    • breezer said on 11th March 2009, 16:48

      thanks jasper u know ur stuff m8 haha… the 05 car wasnt as bad as it lookt it really was the fia lookin to demott ferrari and give the other teams a chance to recover thats how i felt then and still do it was plain as the nose on my face. roll on the first race in melbourne i havnt been this excited since… 2006 shumi com back they wer great races. im not 1 sided anymore apart from ferrari but im hopin therel b 6r7 drivers pushin at the front this year that would be the dogs balls yeehaaa..

  20. qazuhb said on 10th March 2009, 13:10

    It’s really too strange. I think they are in serious trouble, perhaps McL are more testaholics than the other teams due to their bigger budget, but then why are they wasting precious test time? I can believe they could get into trouble, but it seems impossible that they aren’t able to react.
    As for the sandbagging theory, it is common knowledge that there is very little room for improvement nowadays, there aren’t “miraculous” or revolutionary solutions anymore. So why would they do that much ado for a 0.2 seconds advantage? But then again, some modern day Colin Chapman or Gordon Murray could prove me wrong.
    But, if they are sandbagging, please do it in a subtle manner. 4 secs behind the leader? Ridiculous…

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