F1 2013 / Feature

McLaren MP4/28 – What’s gone wrong?

…is the question on everybody’s lips at the moment.  How can the team who had the fastest car at the conclusion of the 2012 season and, in fact, at the first day of the first test of 2013 suddenly be mired in the midfield and struggling to even break into the top ten? What are the chances of its predecessor being called out of retirement to usurp it?

Martin Whitmarsh has not ruled out the possibility of the return of the 2012 MP4/27.

Martin Whitmarsh has not ruled out the possibility of the return of the 2012 MP4/27.

What’s wrong with it?

Despite flying in the hands of Jenson Button on the first day of the Jerez test, the MP4/28 has never looked the same lethal weapon since. A combination of inherent understeer and poor ride quality make it an unpredictable and difficult car to both drive and set up. We all saw the TV pictures from Melbourne; the McLaren’s riding the bumps was akin to a rocking horse, the weight distribution clearly being thrown from front to rear several times within a second. It was a painful image to watch as the car not only bounced over the kerbs but rocked and tilted with the stress placed upon it. Such movement is common in poorly-financed cars such as the Minardi’s and HRT’s of the past, so to see it on the machine designed by the third largest team in Formula One is an incredible condemnation of the inherent design of the MP4/28. Common consent holds that McLaren, in attempting to combat the understeer problem so apparent in testing, have gone too far on focusing on a single problem. Dialling out the understeer diverted essential attention from other areas of the car’s performance, especially the rear floor area where much of the downforce is generated, and has rendered the MP4/28 a virtually back-of-the-grid machine. To top it all off, the understeer is still horribly present.

Who designed it?

Paddy Lowe was the brains behind the 2013 McLaren but, thanks to his placement on ‘gardening leave’ and impending departure to rivals Mercedes, has had very little direct input on the MP4/28 since it left the factory to fly to Jerez. Lead development has been handed to Tim Goss who, until February, was Director of Engineering and responsible for the 2011 and 2012 MP4/26 and MP4/27 designs. Now, he commands the respect due a Technical Director and has been thrown in at the deep end to co-ordinate McLaren’s revival to race-winning form.

What of the pull-rod suspension?

The pull-rod front suspension installed on the MP4/28 is a nod to last year’s Ferrari F2012; it gives the team more space to work with aerodynamic improvement under the front of the car. The MP4/27, while fast, ended up with a strangely-shaped nose last year after the original configuration (with a conventional push-rod suspension) was found to inhibit the team’s ability to maximise the airflow under the front suspension of the car. McLaren’s belief that starting afresh with a radical new design would give them more scope for development has held true. Unfortunately for them, it’s development of the wrong kind. Instead of staying in front of the competition, the Woking-based squad find themselves desperately trying to keep up with Sauber and Force India.

Didn’t Jenson Button say it was ‘the best McLaren I’ve ever had’?

Yes, he did. But as this was before he had set foot in the car it was probably a premature and foolish thing to say; after all, beauty is no indication of speed. He could have been forgiven for repeating the sentiment after the first day in Jerez; however, it turned out the apparent speed of the car was an illusion. Button had been running with a suspension component incorrectly fitted, allowing his car to ride much lower than normal and stick to the track for that impressive laptime. While not illegal, it would be highly inadvisable for the team to intentionally fit key components in a manner that is not consistent with their design…

Why not bring back the MP4/27?

Bringing back the 2012 McLaren machinery would not solve the woes of the British ‘A’ team. They recognised at the end of last season that the MP4/27 had reached the conclusion of its development life, that all possible updates that could add significant performance to the car had been exploited and it was not going to reap any huge chunks of laptime with more attempted upgrades. If McLaren had turned up in Melbourne with the old car, they would have scored solid points. They may even have won the race but, as they rightly recognised, as the season wears on the 2012 car would be left behind by its rivals who have more scope for development. Having said this, Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh has not ruled out the return of the MP4/27 for the Chinese and Bahrain Grand Prix’s as a stop-gap measure until the new car has been fully understood.

Where do McLaren stand?

On the back foot, for sure. Points in Malaysia will be a significant achievement, despite the belief of Sergio Perez that the Sepang circuit will be more suited to his new mount. Tyre wear will be high in the oppressive heat and that was a factor both Button and his Mexican team-mate struggled with in Melbourne. In short, expect nothing better from McLaren this weekend, as it will take time to understand their 2013 challenger.

Time however, unfortunately for McLaren, is what F1 is all about.

 

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