RACE DEBRIEF

    McLaren won the race to kick off launch season with the unveiling of their 2024 livery, just two weeks into the new year and around a month before their real car (the MCL38) will break cover with a shakedown at Silverstone.

    When F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto headed down to the McLaren Technology Centre to see the new skin, he found a team excited about the future and benefitting from the bounce a strong campaign like 2023 can give you...

    READ MORE: McLaren become first F1 team to unveil 2024 look with new livery revealed

    As Red Bull deservedly took the spoils in both championships last season, the biggest thorn in their side came not from the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari – but rather McLaren. The papaya-clad team delivered two stunning upgrades (in Austria and Singapore) to vault from battling to get out of Q1 to regular podium and front row of the grid contender and ultimately taking P4 in the constructors’ standings.

    It's one thing to deliver such an impressive season from an awful start, with subsequent ruthless and consistent development that delivers sizeable steps in terms of lap time gain – and quite another to repeat it. But already, McLaren are in better shape than they were 12 months ago.

    SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 24: Oscar Piastri of Australia driving the (81) McLaren MCL60 Mercedes
    McLaren had an incredible turnaround in form through the 2023 season

    They have a new wind tunnel (McLaren had previously done all off their wind tunnel running off-site at Toyota’s facility in Germany which led to logistical challenges and impacted the timeframe of developments) up and running, with the 2024 car the first project to benefit from this enhancement.

    They have a new simulator on-site, too, bringing them in line with the very best technology run by their biggest rivals. And there was no late change in concept – as was the case last year that meant their launch car was something of a compromise.

    “The preparations so far have been relatively smooth I would say, well smooth in the F1 sense, which means pushing everything to the last minute, to the limit,” says Team Principal Andrea Stella ahead of his second full season in the role. “So far we are on plan.

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    “It’s been interesting because we have been integrating the new infrastructure that we have delivered in 2023, so the MCL38 has been developed entirely at the MTC wind tunnel from September onwards, it’s been developed with the new simulator, and composite, metallic parts are being produced in the new manufacturing infrastructure and facilities we have delivered. That’s a really exciting element heading into the 2024 season.

    “When we talk about integration of resources, as of 2 January we have Rob Marshall [who joins the technical team from Red Bull and is highly-rated] and David Sanchez [an aerodynamic specialist who previously worked for Ferrari], so they have started to look at the project, see how we work, getting to know the people, and I would expect this will give some contributions distributed over the 2024 season. Hopefully we’ll have all these ingredients participating in making our team more competitive and deliver a better car than last year’s.”

    Andrea Stella previews the upcoming 2024 season at the launch of the new McLaren livery
    Andrea Stella previews the upcoming 2024 season at the launch of the new McLaren livery

    Positive numbers from the wind tunnel

    It feels like it’s all coming together for McLaren and Stella says the numbers coming out of the wind tunnel – and through CFD development – suggest they are developing at the same rate in terms of lap time as they managed through last season, which means there’s plenty of headroom to make the car even quicker.

    “So far I have to say we don’t see the diminishing returns,” said Stella. “This obviously will have to be proven once we put the car on the ground, but when it comes to the wind tunnel development or CFD development we see that the gradient we established last year that led to the Austria development and then the Singapore development – it seems we can maintain it.

    “That’s where I would expect the launch car to be at the start of the season, and in the ground we are already starting to work on the further developments that we hope to bring relatively soon in-season and they also seem to be quite interesting so I would say in terms of the regulations themselves, and the development we are having specifically at McLaren, it seems like the kind of linear gradient of development can be maintained.”

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    Providing the data correlates with what they see on track – something we will start to get clarity on when the teams go testing in Bahrain next month – that is super encouraging for McLaren as one of the great challenges for the teams during this era of aerodynamic regulations is finding a concept that can be consistently improved from race to race for more than a season.

    So far, only Red Bull have achieved that feat, with other teams either changing tact after a certain number of months (such as Ferrari) or others persevering too long with a concept that they ultimately had to bin (such as Mercedes).

    One caveat is that this will be the first McLaren out of the new wind tunnel, and thus there will be a question mark over the quality of the correlation, even if they have calibrated it as anticipated. But the mood inside the team suggests that, while they aren’t getting ahead of themselves, there is a strong belief they are heading in the right direction with the pathway they have chosen.

    Expect another rapid development curve this season too, with the team set to bring some upgrades very quickly into the campaign. Many of those upgrades have already percolated in some of the great minds of their technical team, been drawn out and then sent out for production, so long is the lead time of new parts of a Formula 1 car.

    That allows the team to split the thinking into three, with Stella saying the design office is running separate development programmes – for this year, 2025 and 2026 – the latter seeing a dramatic overhaul in the rules, both in terms of aero and Power Units.

    Such an approach will only be bolstered by a technical line-up that now has its three key figures in place below Stella with Peter Prodromou joined by Sanchez and Marshall. And it is believed more new faces are set to join later this year, to further strengthen the outfit.

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    “Definitely what we can see in the first two weeks [of Marshall and Sanchez] is that they come with quite a lot of knowledge,” said Stella. “It’s no surprise, they’ve been part of great teams, great projects. This knowledge, the good thing is I think we see this integrates with our knowhow, so it’s not like ‘ah we should do things in this way, which is opposite to what you do’.

    “It’s ‘we can do things in this way, which adds to what you do’, and that is refreshing. We have also had the possibility to appreciate their personal approach, which I think has engaged people in fascinated technical conversations. We see the momentum, the energy, the ideas, which flow through the organisation.

    “Practically, we need to think right now, not only at McLaren, we have a 2024 car, then we are already setting the basis for how do we evolve the '24 onto the '25. Then there’s a '26 project with completely new technical regulations so there’s so much work that we need to go through that is very important to have these high calibre people leading their respective technical areas because this means we have the capacity, the capability, the competence to approach these three big projects with the horsepower to compete in the top of Formula 1.”

    SUZUKA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 23: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle
    Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri will hope to challenge Max Verstappen and Red Bull more regularly

    The Red Bull question

    The question everyone wants the answer to right now is can McLaren take the fight to Red Bull and make a battle of it this season? While Stella is optimistic about the progress McLaren can make this year, if they deliver on the anticipated trajectory the data is showing, he is all too aware Red Bull could kick on ahead, having moved development focus at an early stage last year.

    “When we think specifically about Red Bull, there’s one element that obviously I think puts everyone in doubt as to what’s going to happen in 2024,” said Stella. “And it’s the fact they didn’t develop their car very much [last year], so have they cashed in, accumulated development that they will capitalise onto next year’s car?

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    “This is my theory, I can’t think that Red Bull were not in condition to develop their car. They might have decided not to deliver upgrades, this might be their gradient kept going, so I would say Red Bull should be extremely competitive.

    “We will see where we are, what kind of challenge we will be able to set on track. For me, for us, it’s important to see that we are doing a good job on our own performance development and we are confident that we keep doing this, over time, we have an opportunity to close the gap. That’s our vision for the future.”

    Zak Brown reacts to launch of new McLaren livery and previews the upcoming 2024 season
    Zak Brown reacts to launch of new McLaren livery and previews the upcoming 2024 season

    His boss Zak Brown, McLaren Racing’s CEO, added: “We clearly want to continue to close the gap. We finished up last year as the second or third quickest team, depending on which circuit you’re at.

    “The car development has been strong. Red Bull certainly seems like they didn’t develop last year to the level they could if they wanted to, so that could be an unpleasant surprise for all of us.”

    READ MORE: Verstappen admits McLaren could be ‘very strong’ in 2024 following impressive turnaround

    McLaren know all they can do is focus on themselves and hope to continue the momentum they gathered through last year – where Lando Norris scored more points than any driver other than Max Verstappen in the phase from Austria in July to Abu Dhabi in November.

    Do that, though, and they have a great shot of achieving Brown’s goal of closing the gap to Red Bull and inching Norris and his team mate Oscar Piastri closer to their respective first Grand Prix victories and bringing the team closer to becoming a permanent fixture at the sharp end.

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