Technical

How McLaren are trying to stay ahead of Ferrari – and the front wing call they have to make for Monaco

Technical Contributors

Mark Hughes and Giorgio Piola
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McLaren arrive at Monaco with a slim advantage over Ferrari, but the Woking squad have some technical decisions to make for the race in the Principality, explains Mark Hughes – with illustrations from Giorgio Piola...

McLaren continue to make the progress that was evident last year and arrive at Monaco for round five of the championship in third place in the constructors’ and as the third-fastest qualifying car (see table below). In the four races to date their qualifying average has been just 0.5s off the fastest, whereas over the 2020 season it was 1.1s.

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Qualifying average over first four races

ClassificationTeamAverage time
1Red Bull1m 19.609s
2Mercedes1m 19.615s
3McLaren1m 20.108s
4Ferrari1m 20.173s
5Alpine1m 20.373s
6AlphaTauri1m 20.410s
7Aston Martin1m 20.657s
8Williams1m 21.007s
9Alfa Romeo1m 21.066s
10Haas1m 22.049s

However, their advantage over fourth-fastest Ferrari is not clear-cut, and they are ahead only if we include Lando Norris’ deleted third-fastest qualifying time from Imola (which was disallowed for being around 3cm beyond track limits at Piratella). The battle between the two teams is intense, with the advantage swinging from one to another according to the demands of the track.

The pattern of performance so far suggests that the McLaren can generate greater aerodynamic load in the high-speed corners and has better straight-line speed but that the Ferrari is more agile into slower corners. Which would seem to suggest that Monaco will be a better fit for the Ferrari than the McLaren.

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However, McLaren brought a very significant upgrade to their car at the last race in Barcelona, where the team joined the ‘Z-floor’ club and got an accompanying revised front wing. McLaren are among the last to have switched to the Z-floor whereby a section (shown in yellow) is cut away from the edges of the floor to form a Z (with the dotted lines showing where the floor edge is allowed to extend).

The Z creates a vortex of air which is sucked under the floor to form a seal for the underfloor, allowing it to create more downforce as the negative underfloor pressure isn’t leaking away from the side of the floor. In this way the Z does what the banned floor slots used to do.

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McLaren are the latest team to sport a Z-shaped floor...

Although this development addresses the rear end downforce taken away by the 2021 regulations, it can impact on how aggressively the front axle can be loaded up by the driver. The limitation on how aggressively a driver can point the car into a slow corner – and thereby minimise the time taken to get the car to take a set line – is often the stability of the rear end rather than the grip potential of the front.

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The Barcelona updates, designed for the global spread of all the circuits on the calendar, may well help address the McLaren’s lesser agility into slow corners. Which will obviously be a boon at Monaco.

But it will be interesting to see if McLaren retain the new front wing at Monaco – for that has been designed to reduce the pitch sensitivity of the car. Pitch sensitivity is to do with how much the car’s balance changes according to its pitch or dive.

McLaren's front wing comparison

Some pitch sensitivity is good, but too much is bad. It’s good when it aids the car’s direction change into slow corners by working the front wing harder when the car is pitched downwards under braking. It’s bad when it does this to such an extent that the front load increases too quickly for the rear to keep up with.

The new front wing, with the bigger ‘throat’ area beneath the outboard end of its underside, will not generate such a sudden increase in front grip under dive. But it could be that on the slow corners of Monaco the more aggressive loading of the old wing would aid the car, especially now that the Z-floor should have given it a stronger rear end.

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Let’s see what McLaren choose to do in their ongoing struggle against Ferrari. If they can emerge on top around a track which should suit their rivals, it would obviously bode well for McLaren’s season.

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