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Formula 1 Spanish GP

Why McLaren shocked on F1’s toughest aero track

McLaren’s surprise Spanish Grand Prix qualifying result stemmed from a combination of perfect storm factors covering the Barcelona Formula 1 track layout, temperatures and tyre performance, say Lando Norris and Andrea Stella. 

Lando Norris, McLaren, after Qualifying

Norris qualified third for the Barcelona race behind pole-winner Max Verstappen and home hero Carlos Sainz – his best qualifying result of 2023 by four positions (his next best was seventh in Azerbaijan). 

The Briton said afterwards the result left him “shocked” as he had thought “it was going to be tough to get out of Q1”, and outlined his belief that the Barcelona layout boosted McLaren as it features several high-speed corners when its MCL60 car performs well. 

“We're still pretty poor in many areas, but high speed has always been one of our strengths for years and low speed quite the opposite,” Norris explained in the post-qualifying press conference. 

“So, I think this layout has helped us. It has benefited us a bit more.  

“I think already [in] FP2 I was flat in Turn 3, flat in Turn 9, probably one of the few guys apart from Red Bull who did that.  

“So yeah, I think it’s a track where more of the strengths have been able to be shown, even though Monaco wasn't bad.  

“We do struggle a lot in the low-speed corners so that's still the area we know we want to take big steps forward.” 

Top three Qualifiers Lando Norris, McLaren, pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari

Top three Qualifiers Lando Norris, McLaren, pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The MCL60 has had tricky life so far in 2023, where it has been named to honour McLaren’s celebrations regarding the anniversary of its founding by Bruce McLaren in 1963. 

But at the car’s launch, the team was frank that it had missed its aerodynamic efficiency targets during its initial design process, resulting in the package being too draggy and having an under-developed floor. 

Although it has added drag compared to its rivals, those larger aero surfaces help the MCL60 pack on peak downforce – a major boost at the Barcelona track where the long corners test.

F1 car aero performance more than most others 

McLaren team principal Stella had indicated long corners were previously a weakness of the MCL60, which was updated with a new floor in Baku, but at Barcelona, this is being overcome because the turns are faster than those at most of the other tracks F1 has visited so far in 2023.  

The MCL60 can also seemingly warm-up Pirelli’s 2023 C3 tyre – the soft at Barcelona – better than many of its rivals this weekend. 

Added to that, Stella feels low temperatures caused by pre-qualifying rain and cloud cover boosted McLaren further on Saturday with its potent tyre warming, plus the smooth Barcelona track surface meant it could run lower ride heights than elsewhere on the calendar. 

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“Conditions were pretty much ideal for McLaren,” Stella said after qualifying.  

“We have a combination of cold conditions in which certainly we seem to be taking advantage by good characteristics on warming up the tyres.  

“Then we have some high-speed corners where the car is competitive.  

“[Plus] no wind, which seems like it made our car quite calm and predictable and therefore more exploitable in terms of grip.  

“I feel these are the main conditions [benefitting us].  

“There's also another one, which is the track is very smooth here. So, you can run, you know, some particular ride heights, where our car again seems to be delivering good aerodynamic load.  

“So, a bit of positive circumstances in [yesterday’s] result. We’re keeping our feet on the ground [for the race].” 

Stella is, however, remaining cautious about Norris’s chances of retaining his high starting spot in the race because, “the benefit of having such a level of grip, it only happens on new soft for a single lap [in qualifying]”. 

He is therefore wary of McLaren eating through its tyres quickly in race conditions on high fuel, with Sunday’s event predicted to be a two-stopper because of the demands placed on left-side tyres by the Barcelona layout. 

“[The race] will be much less grip in any condition during the race, either because you are on used soft, or medium or hard tyres,” Stella explained. 

“So, as I say, we are realistic, but we hope we confirm two cars in the points.” 

Additional reporting by Matt Kew

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