Why McLaren are “slightly happier” after debut of long-awaited upgrade

2023 F1 season

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With Formula 1’s revised technical regulations still relatively young and the budget cap now in its third year, developing effective and efficient car upgrades is even more critical for teams than ever before.

While those at the front of the field know developing their car through the season can make the difference between a world championship title or dropping down the rankings and losing millions of dollars of prize money in the process, a well-designed upgrade package can also turnaround a poor start to a season for teams further back.

In 2023, one of the teams desperately trying to claw their way further up the order is McLaren. Despite sitting a reasonable fifth place in the constructors’ standings after five rounds, equal with Alpine, it has been a difficult start to the season for the team, performance-wise.

Team principal Andrea Stella has an extensive history in Formula 1 in an engineering capacity, but this is the first season where he is working to improve a car’s performance as the leader of his team. McLaren brought their latest raft of updates to their MCL60 during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend in Baku and there he spoke to media including RaceFans about the philosophy his team is taking to improving their 2023 car.

“This generation of cars, a lot of what’s contributed to the performance is what you don’t see – it’s under the car,” Stella explained. “This is very different from the previous generation of cars, where the geometry was prescribed as being flat. Now there’s no prescription.”

While the differences are not easy to observe, improving a car’s performance is not as simple as noting what more successful rivals have done and copying them.

“If you look underneath, you’ll see the channels which play quite a significant role, you’ll see the fences,” says Stella. “The channels and the fences, they play together – so it’s not like ‘I saw some different channels on another car, I can copy them’. It’s a very three dimensional flow.”

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McLaren car updates, Baku, 2023
McLaren brought their new floor to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix

The emphasis on car floors producing downforce through ground effect with the current generation of cars is so great that there are so many nuances and details that teams have to consider when it comes to bringing modifications to this crucial area of the car, Stella explains.

“This is also why you don’t only have to get the basic concepts right – which is something we haven’t done for the start of the season – but it also starts to become a game of millimetres, here and there,” he said.

“For instance – all these geometries – they just accommodate vorticity [whirling motion of air] and millimetres here make the difference. They make the difference for our stable vortices when they travel and also it makes a difference for porpoising. So really the name of the game now in terms of getting the flow right is understanding what is the high-level concepts that you need to focus the development on. And then it’s a real game of millimetres.”

McLaren introduced a significant upgrade in Baku which put the team on the development path it believes it should have been on since the first race of the season. The floor wasn’t the only area it changed.

“A smaller level of upgrade is also changing the concept on the beam wing,” said Stella. “This beam wing configuration is now split and is overall just more efficient. We plan to keep developing this area of the car as well for the rest of the season.

“Floor-wise as well, I would hope that we have another couple of developments at least over the course of this season.”

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McLaren’s reshaped beam wing design

In decades past when teams were far less restricted in what they can do with development, it was common – and still is to a degree – to see teams bringing track-specific packages to their cars to try and maximise performance. So with car floors so critical, does a team like McLaren update its floor each race or aim to make larger iterations through the season?

It’s been a disappointing start to the season for McLaren
“As I said before, it’s very much a game of millimetres,” Stella said. “If you change the fences, then you need to adapt something else as everything’s connected and three-dimensional.

“It’s difficult to find a detail that works in isolation, so that’s why I say I hope it’s another couple of developments because the reality is going to be a completely new floor. And it takes time to produce. From when you release the geometry to production, to when you actually land the floor trackside, it can take almost two months.”

With greater emphasis on computational fluid dynamics and complex computer modelling in the modern era, the limited time teams get in the wind tunnel is more important than ever before. That makes correlation between the data and figures teams expect to find from their virtual modelling and wind tunnels to the real race track so vital – with even the previously dominant Mercedes team admitting that they have had concerns about data correlation with their facilities due to the unexpectedly poor performance of their ground effect concept.

However, when it comes to McLaren – whose brand new wind tunnel is currently being prepared to become fully operational – Stella believes his team are encountering fewer data correlation headaches with the newest generation of cars compared to the previous.

“This generation of cars is overall better correlated, at least at McLaren, knowing that we have some limitations with the wind tunnel,” he explained.

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“I think the limitations of the wind tunnel with the previous generation of cars was very restrictive. Not only for the logistics and all the things that we say all the time – it was even restrictive for the aerodynamic correlation, generally. These cars, a lot happens under the floor where, overall, the correlation is better for whatever reason.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Albert Park, 2023
Sixth in Melbourne is the team’s best result so far
“In the previous generation, there were many vortices that were flying in free air – generated from the bargeboards, for instance, or the front wing. So that area was always a little more tricky. This front wing works further away from the ground, it’s simpler. Even the floor for some reasons correlate better. So overall, this I think, is more to do with the generation of cars and these aerodynamics.”

In Baku, McLaren brought multiple updates to their beam wing elements in a bid to find more of the performance level they expected from their car. Lando Norris said the team’s car was “what we should have started the year with” and went on to claim two points in the grand prix with ninth place. Stella said McLaren’s upgrades had succeeded in bringing what the team had hoped they would to their car.

“I cannot tell the numbers of aerodynamic efficiency, but let’s say that, for here, we were expecting something that was like maybe two or three tenths – that’s what we were expecting – and generally, we think that’s what happened.

“This is very rough, really, because of the different track, new Tarmac, very rough. But I think in terms of competitiveness, it looks like we are slightly happier than we’ve been so far in the first three races.”

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2023 F1 season

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...
RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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8 comments on “Why McLaren are “slightly happier” after debut of long-awaited upgrade”

  1. Another team which got big updates in the last two races, but really hasn’t shown any improvement in performance. Is every team on the grid, except for Red Bull, failing in its development path. Ferrari have taken a step backwards with their huge update, Mclaren hasn’t improved either. Mercedes seems to be exactly where they were before. Aston hasn’t moved either.

    Either all their updates are equally effective or equally ineffective.

    1. Astons only update pretry much has been a rear wing in baku,lets see where they are if they start to bring bigger updates,but others have been pretty poor yes.

  2. I’m not happy. Not happy at all.

  3. As per usual with McLaren, it’s all excuses with ‘But just wait until this thing arrives!’

    Then it arrives, is totally underwhelming and a new excuse comes out where they need one more thing. Wind tunnels, drivers, engines, floors, bargeboards, brakes, designers, team structure etc

    Rinse and repeat.

    This upgrade was no different.

    Was it an improvement?, Probably. But the very next round they’re right back to being 2nd slowest team.

    Now we’re back on the ride of ‘But now we’re a few weeks behind everyone else because this was how we should have started the season’.

    And with an excuse like that, the reshuffle behind the scenes and the shiny ticket of ‘just wait for the wind tunnel, then you’ll see’ on the backburner, The season is a write off. Again.

    Chuck your money on the first car with the wind tunnel to be no better and correlation/lack of experience with it being the excuse.

    1. I have more confidence in Williams at this point than McLaren.

  4. Why I haven’t seen anyone asking Piastri what he feels like about Alpine being a regular top10 finisher and Mclaren fighting to get out of Q1

    1. I think for Oscar it was less about getting points and more about how he compared to his team mate. So on that front, I would think how he performs against Norris will be a far better benchmark than how he performed against Ocon. So of all the teams he had a choice of, I think he chose the right option. I’m sure if he had a chance at red Bull, Merc or Ferrari he would’ve taken it, but of the rest of the teams I think Norris would’ve been the most highly rated.

    2. I’d say Piastri is feeling good about his decision, since Alpine threw him under a bus and launched a ‘disloyal’ campaign directed at him. Something rotten was happening inside the team at the time, they lost Alonso and Piastri within a couple of days.

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