Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: From being assured of podiums to P10 – what went wrong for McLaren in Las Vegas?
The McLaren MCL60 was not at its best around the new Las Vegas track and the team, which has recently presented the biggest threat to Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, came away with just a 10th place finish plus fastest lap – with neither car having made it out of Q1 in qualifying.
So what had happened to the car, which had been Verstappen’s only challenger in Brazil the week before, and which had set pole position there for the Sprint race?
“We know our car doesn’t work so well on slow corners,” summarised McLaren CEO Zak Brown after a very disappointing qualifying session for McLaren, with Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri failing to make it out of Q1, finishing 16th and 18th respectively.
While that was an accurate summary, the problem went a little deeper. Though not at its best around a low-downforce track (its Monza-spec wing is not very efficient, as the team has concentrated its development on wing levels seen at more ‘normal’ tracks), it was still perfectly capable of making it through to Q2 and probably Q3 too.
The problem was marrying the set up to the unusual tyre demands of such a cold track with such slow corners and long straights. Often the McLaren has been among the very best at generating quick warm-up of the front tyres, but never at low wing levels.
In Las Vegas everyone was experiencing heavy graining of the right-front with the soft tyre. Typically, this would make it useless after four push laps. That would normally be ample to get a representative lap in, but McLaren was thrown by a difference in tyre behaviour between practice and Q1, as Team Principal Andrea Stella explained after qualifying.
“The fact that we were not performing very well left us on the back foot because we were very focused on trying to squeeze some performance out of the car. There were quite a lot of changes from yesterday, which finally actually added some performance. But we haven't done enough work because we’re being on the back foot in understanding how you should actually use the tyres for qualifying.
“In FP3, we saw with Oscar that actually the third lap was faster and he was on a fourth lap in which he was as fast as the third. So we convinced ourselves that the tyres could have repeated the lap time and that was the plan into Q1. At the time we opened the third lap, we realised that the tyres were going off, but then it was too late to pit.
"So, the main reason why we are knocked out in Q1 definitely is not car performance… but the choices in terms of how to use the tyres in Q1 and the execution of the plan wasn't ideal.”
“We damaged the tyres quite a lot, which we didn't really see in practice earlier either,” added Piastri. “The car was honestly not bad. I think if we had gotten through, we had the potential to be in Q3 and perform decently.”
Taking a second set of tyres as the track grip improved would almost certainly have got both cars through to Q2. But other cars which stayed with a multiple lap single run got through – notably the Ferraris, Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso. They were respectively 1.1s, 0.7s and 0.3s faster, though. They did not have such a tiny window of front tyre performance on the soft.
At Monza, the last circuit using this wing level, the McLarens were around 0.7s slower than Ferrari. Here, the gap was bigger, probably on account of the absence of any medium-high speed corners where the McLaren is strong, the Ferrari less so. Given their known aero deficiency with this wing level, McLaren would probably be trying to compensate with a low ride height.
Lando Norris’ heavy crash in the race came on Lap 3, shortly after the VSC ended, when tyre pressures would be very low from running slowly and the fuel load still very high. This almost certainly contributed to the car bottoming out over the bump and Norris losing control.
But once the race got properly going Piastri was coming through the field impressively. The hard tyre on which he’d started was not suffering significant graining and he was set to run long before switching to the medium. That plan went awry with his wheel-rubbing incident with Lewis Hamilton, which gave both cars punctures.
Piastri was forced to pit for replacements on Lap 16 – far too early to switch to mediums. Accordingly, he was switched to a two-stop and fitted with another set of hards.
On these he again came through the field and made some breathtaking passes, showing pace enough to suggest the car could have been towards the front with a better qualifying position. Running in fourth place and still lapping quickly, the switch to mediums was left as late as possible in the hope of a Safety Car and the time-cheap pit stop it would have facilitated.
Seven laps before the end he was brought in, dropping him to 11th but with a big new tyre performance advantage, he made it up to 10th, setting the race’s fastest lap along the way. Two points was better than none but it could still only count as a deeply disappointing weekend for the team by their recent standards.