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)

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157 comments on McLaren struggling or sandbagging?

  1. Racefan said on 10th March 2009, 4:07

    If Mclaren are sandbagging,why are they always faster with the 08 spec rear wing?I don’t think there is any reason for them to be super-confident at this time as all teams will be keeping their cards closely(especially BMW,Williams & renault).The same was said about renault in 2007,when they struggled in testing.And they did struggle to the end.I think sandbagging at a time like this will not give any results.
    They are really having a problem.

  2. Terry Fabulous said on 10th March 2009, 4:26


    As many have pointed out, last year was the first time in ages that they managed to put together two strong years consecutively.

    Don’t forget also that at the end of 08, they and Ferrari were throwing time and money at the current cars while the rest of the grid quietly prepared for 09.

    And also, all the talk about McLaren’s amazing resources conveniently forgets that Toyota, BMW and Ferrari are spending the same amount.

  3. At some point in testing, you need to prove on track just how fast your car is, in race trim. Look at BrawnGP (Lord, that reads great, doesn’t it?!?!?!) first time out of the box, light fuel and all, they had to find out the limit of the cars performance.

    If Mac can’t generate a top 3 lap time then I don’t think it’s sanbagging. Then again, I can’t believe that knucklehead RD would allow Lewis to race for 5th place at Interlagos with the title on the line either.

    The point is that McLaren tend to do strange things strategically, but I’ll vote the “In trouble” ticket on this issue.

  4. anirudh said on 10th March 2009, 4:52

    certainly struggling, i don’t think its clever compromising ‘real testing of the car’ for the sake of putting sand in others eyes. I mean seeing a slow McLaren will put skeptical Ferrari nd friends at ease?

  5. GQsm said on 10th March 2009, 5:39

    Of all the teams on the grid, I just can’t see McLaren being the only one to fall totally on their ****. In Melbourne I expect unique parts on the car they don’t want the other teams to see yet and suspect that is the reason they are not showing their pace in testing at the moment.
    That’s just my hunch though.

    I can’t wait for Melbourne to see the true pecking order. The teams can’t all be at the top so seeing who is going to be giving Ferrari and McLaren a run for their money is really interesting. I’d like to see Williams and Toyota up there and Williams’ flywheel KERS to run well.

  6. I’d vote for sandbagging. There’s simply no way they can be this far off the pace, seeing how other teams have actually caught up with Ferrari.

  7. I would love them to actually be struggling just to see if Hamilton is really as good as he thinks he is.

    But unfortunately, they are probably just sandbagging and will back up the top with Ferrari come Melbourne

    • S Hughes said on 10th March 2009, 10:40

      Er, he’s the world champion and his teammate came 7th. Unbelievable!

    • Phil said on 10th March 2009, 11:13

      If you don’t think Hamilton has already proved this you obviously haven’t seen his amazing comeback in that infamous Turkish GP2 race.

  8. IDR said on 10th March 2009, 6:46

    In my opinion, they are not sandbagging, but at the end they will be one of the top contenders as every year.

    If they are using 2008 rear wing because this set up simulates the downforce they will have with their final 2009 aeropackage, one must say their times have not been quite a lot extarordinary to see McLaren blowing up the rest of the teams.

    So, they will be one of the title contenders, but not the superfast car some McLaren fans are imaging.

  9. Ali said on 10th March 2009, 6:47

    Here is McLaren’s new aero floor:

  10. skova265 said on 10th March 2009, 8:28

    i am a fan of Hamilton and Mclaren. Aperantly some people ( read many )think that Hamilton was faster of Alonso in 2007 because of the team etc..
    Some of those people should do a little research because he was quick in everything he drove up to f1.
    As for Mclaren this year i am on the thinking that they have problems with the car.

  11. 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…

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

    Finally 0.6 seconds are gone.

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

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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