How quick will McLaren be in Melbourne?

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Mark Hughes

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Fernando Alonso will miss the Australian Grand Prix as a medical precaution following his being knocked unconscious in last week’s Barcelona testing accident. Although McLaren stresses that the various scans show no indication of injury, it is now clear that he did incur a significant concussion and a loss of consciousness in the accident.

In such cases it’s a conventional modern precaution to limit risk of a further concussion for a few weeks afterwards as any brain swelling from the original could significantly increase the risks of a second such incident.

Assuming he is back in the car in the subsequent races, it’s possible his season will not be much affected, for testing showed that the McLaren-Honda is as yet unreliable. However, much the same could have been said for last year’s Red Bull – and it went on to be second past the Melbourne chequer. On that occasion Renault had identified and understood its engine problem, just as Red Bull was manufacturing a new long-lead part to fix the tendency for the car to set itself alight (believed to be a different transmission casing). The fixes were ready just in time for Melbourne, where we got to see just how competitive the car was for the first time.

In the case of Honda, the most debilitating problem has been that of ers seals. The engine has been running in a very de-tuned state in order just to get testing mileage onto the car. Assuming that can be rectified in time for Melbourne, and that there are no further gremlins as yet undiscovered, a 2014 Red Bull-like quantum leap from testing misery to first race competitiveness would not be so surprising.

It’s even happened at McLaren before. The 2011 McLaren MP4-26 spent most of its off-season in the McLaren garage amid various shrapnel from its radical ‘octopus’ exhaust. In the little running it did do, it was around three seconds off the pace. But Melbourne revealed a very quick car indeed (albeit with a more conventional exhaust), Lewis Hamilton planting it on the front row and finishing second to Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull.

The feedback from the drivers and from on-track observation is that the MP4-30 is a much better balanced, more-planted looking car than its two aerodynamically mediocre predecessors. Given that it appears essentially to be a Honda-powered Red Bull in concept, it would be surprising if that were otherwise. As yet, we have no idea just how fast or slow the car is – exactly as with the 2014 Red Bull RB10 and the 2011 MP4-26 at this same stage of the pre-season.

Mercedes finally unveiled its true pace during the second and final Barcelona test and it’s clearly still the team to beat. Williams, with a pretty shrewd idea of the W06’s fuel load when Nico Rosberg recorded the best time, reckons it is around 0.7sec adrift. Which seems to put it potentially at a similar level to Ferrari and Red Bull.

Teams analyse GPS data to estimate where their rivals’ strengths and weaknesses lie and it would appear that Ferrari has taken a big step forward in both engine and aerodynamics but that it still lags significantly behind Mercedes in horsepower. The pattern would suggest that the Ferrari is aerodynamically superior to the Williams but down on power while the Red Bull is aerodynamically better than the Ferrari but with an engine even further adrift (as Renault has decided to save its development tokens for a mid-season revamp led by Mario Illien). Achieved in very different ways, the Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull seem capable of very similar lap times.

So where does McLaren fit into this? If its aerodynamics are indeed at Red Bull’s level, then where it slots into the competitive order will be down to Honda – and because of the lack of flat-out running, we have absolutely no idea how that motor stacks up on power, driveability and economy to the others. There just might be a major revelation on the cards…

 

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