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McLaren conjure up surprise speed

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Sarah Holt | 09:30 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

In Melbourne

McLaren are renowned for their ability to get themselves out of trouble with feverish car development but the Formula 1 community are wondering if they can pull off their biggest Houdini act yet at the Australian Grand Prix.

After three winter tests where they struggled for reliability and pace, McLaren marched to the top of the timesheets as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton set the fastest times on the opening day of practice at the first race of the season.

McLaren personnel were seen arriving at Melbourne airport laden with boxes and boxes of new parts as the English team instigated a major overhaul of the lagging MP4-26.

The team decided to abandon their innovative but unreliable 'octopus' exhaust system - where the idea was to blow air across the floor with multiple exhaust exits - and install a regular exhaust with a new floor and front wing.

Team boss Martin Whitmarsh described the modifications as "risky" but predicted the gamble could garner a second in pace to help close the gap on pre-season front-runners Red Bull and Ferrari.

As twilight fell on the first day of 2011 season, the McLarens held sway at the top of the timings, with leader Button bettering Fernando Alonso's Ferrari by 0.147 seconds and Red Bull's champion Sebastian Vettel by 0.160secs.

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There was every sign - not to mention a ripple of surprise in the paddock - that McLaren's gamble had paid off.

"It's encouraging and a step in the right direction," a tired but pleased Whitmarsh told BBC Sport.

"The truth is we had a variety of creative exhaust systems and we got some good performance. But we didn't have something that was sufficiently durable in my view, which is why I said to the engineers: 'Let's get something that can be solid and can deliver.' And that's what we chose to do. We needed something reliable that would perform here at the race.

"Everyone has worked hard to get the package here in 10 days flat."

Button also pointed to another encouraging first for McLaren - a car that was capable of completing a race distance, something the team were not able to achieve in testing.

"We've got reliability, which is something we haven't had all winter," Button, who is chasing a third straight win in Melbourne, explained.

"To have a car that can run for as many laps as we want to is great.

"Whatever we'd have done in testing we still wouldn't have been running quickest even if other cars had run on high fuel so I'm very happy with the step we've made."

Top times may be one thing but they do not tell the whole story in F1 - especially in practice when it is not known how much fuel each team has on board. The fact that the teams are still feeling their way with the new Pirelli tyres in the environment of a race weekend adds a further layer of uncertainty.

Tyre management and strategy will be crucial to determining the outcome of races this season as the Pirellis are not only degrading quickly but there is a great performance differential between the compounds.

But McLaren felt they could draw on another positive here, saying they were comfortable with the tyre performance even on Melbourne's bumpy and dusty temporary track.

Ferrari also said they had experienced "less obvious tyre degradation" while in contrast Red Bull's hard tyres were visibly worn during six-lap stints in first practice.

"I've got to say our guys really held the tyres together and exceeded expectations in durability and performance over long runs," added Whitmarsh.

While there are smiles all round at McLaren - even from former boss Ron Dennis, who is keeping his watchful eyes on proceedings - no one is getting carried away.

"It was an encouraging day," commented Whitmarsh. "All we are trying to do is keep our feet on the ground."

Many F1 insiders believe that neither Red Bull nor Ferrari have yet to unleash their true pace in qualifying trim.

Like the great white sharks lurking in Australian water, last season's top predators could well be circling their prey before launching an attack in qualifying.

But if McLaren have sharpened their teeth and taken a genuine step forward in time for the first grand prix then any already hotly-anticipated F1 opener has now got even hotter.


  • Comment number 1.


    yay mclaren!

  • Comment number 2.

    conjure, not conjur. maybe it was a long day.

  • Comment number 3.

    Certainly looks more promising for Mclaren than many had previously thought, whether it is due to a jump in performance or more simply reading too much into testing times when they were behind on track time, I don't know. Although MB thought the car looked awful so maybe it is a big improvement.
    Really looking forward to qualifying, debating whether to get up early or not as I have a X country later. gutted.

  • Comment number 4.

    I believe the McLarens might have been a bit lucky in the 2nd session. While the pace has definitely improved I think either Red Bull or one Ferrari (you can guess who?) would have knocked them off the top spot if the rain hadn’t have come in the last 10 minutes.

  • Comment number 5.

    Good news, I had hoped that the MP4-26 had some pace in there somewhere. It looked an innovative design from day one.

    I still think that RB and Ferrari will have too much for them this weekend, but they are not as far away as some people thought.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Sarah,

    I'm not convinced that qualifying is really the pivotal point. Yes, important but not absolutely vital. Its more who copes best with tyre degradation. McLaren will be very happy with their increased performance after their various upgrades, but I think that Jensen Button will be happiest as he will manage his tyres more efficiently than any of his opponents.

    So with the improvements in lap times and excellent tyre preservation, I reckon Button currently holds the ascendency.

  • Comment number 7.

    The interesting point i've noted (that no-one else seems to have mentioned so far!) is that, with the application of the 107% rule, neither Virgins would have made it through in either session. Not looking so good for them!

  • Comment number 8.

    Button for a hat-trick!!

  • Comment number 9.

    Better than expected from McLaren but I reckon Red Bull and Ferrari had at least half a tank worth more fuel in. McLaren just went for a glory run to appease sponsors.

  • Comment number 10.

    Personally, I don't think being at the top means anything at this stage, but what is interesting is the difference in teams. Shift about over the two sessions between the merc' drivers. Button faster than Hamilton in both sessions. Barichello (Hope he gets smoe more podiums this year) looking quick, Maldonado not (although it is his first day!). Kobayashi looking fast, and Petrov quicker than Heidfeld in both sessions.

    Without knowing tyre and fuel loads for the two sessions, track seems to be bedding in, guys getting to know the limits. I'm going to say that both Fererari and Red Bull have more pace for qualifying and expect them to be top three followed by a Merc/Mclaren in fourth, and that's because I honestly think that Massa has had his day, and won't be racing a Ferrari next year, and it is such a tragedy for RK, as I am convinced he would have been the right guy for the job at the right time.

  • Comment number 11.

    Nice one McLaren! - It's too risky yet to say what their relative pace is as times without the numbers are somewhat meaningless, but it's very encouraging, and I hope they can carry it through to qualifying. The other good thing is that McLaren tyre degradation seems to be less evident than Red Bull, although Ferrari also report less evident degradation. If this is carried through to the race then it could add up to a pit stop less for McLaren and Ferrari which will put Red Bull at a disadvantage.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hey Jenson won the Australian Grand Prix last year and he certainly didn;t have the fastest car then so all to play for.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm not sure the rain made any difference to times, by the time it came, the session was in race simulation mode with DRS restricted to the same usage as it will be in the race, and most teams had gone back to the harder tyres too.

    Certainly encouraging for McLaren, the big question though is how much were Red Bull and Ferrari holding back. (Apart from Massa who seemed to be having a couple of ragged sessions.)

    If last year is anything to go by it's practice 3 where the real pre-qualifying work is done, and Red Bull were always looking good by the end of that session. However, if it rains tomorrow, then that may not matter and timing of runs could be everything.

  • Comment number 14.

    Everyone claims that McLaren are great at developing the car through the season, but they didn't manage it last year, probably peaking around mid-season and then fading a little towards the end.

    RB and Ferrari may well out-qualify the McLarens but given their pre-season testing I expect they'll be happy to be third fastest at the moment! The season is so long now that there is time for the balance of power to shift several times before the end.

    As Alonso said towards the end of last season, with points going down to tenth, it's important to be consistent and finish races. Too many DNFs can be really costly, as RBR almost found out last season. If the McLarens can finish and score points when they're not fastest, and continue to improve the car, they may yet have a chance!

  • Comment number 15.

    Really backing McLaren to have a surprise win this weekend. I still think they held things back over the winter testing period and now they can start showing their force!

    Come on Lewis and Jenson!

  • Comment number 16.

    We may have a new saying in the making, 'There's senationalism, tabloid sensationalism and the BBC.'

    Seriously Ms Holt do you honestly believe what McLaren would be pulling of "their biggest Houdini act yet"?

    We all know testing is hard to judge as different teams are doing different things. We also know that free practice is also misleading. So what are you basing your exaggeration on?

  • Comment number 17.

    Rookie Perez gets 8th in the second practise in the Sauber beating Kobi by a long way.

    He also went quickest on day three of the final pre-season session.

    He is also a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy.

    The biggest shock of the session.

  • Comment number 18.

    Not in the least bit surprised by this apparent turn around at Mclaren. They've proved consisitently over the last couple of years to be the best team at massive in season development. Unfortunately for Mclaren the issue is the NEED for these massive developments - to stand a chance of winning big numbers of races and championships they need to focus on getting it right first time and taking the fight to Red Bull and Ferrari from the first test onwards. That having been said, as a Lewis and Jenson fan, having the Mclaren's be able to fight for podiums is no bad thing at any point in the season.

  • Comment number 19.

    Mclaren has "decided to abandon their innovative but unreliable 'octopus' exhaust system".

    The lack of testing means they went for broke with this system, which they just couldnt get right in pre-season. So they just went back to an exhaust system they probably already had devaloped by the end of last year.

    Wouldn't be supprised to see a further developed version 'octopus' exhaust system as an upgrade mid season when they may need an extra tenth or two.

    Q1 on Sat i think will give the real reflection of how all the teams have done over the summer.

  • Comment number 20.

    Great blog - any chance we can get the race countdown timer back for this year?

  • Comment number 21.

    "18. At 12:21pm on 25th Mar 2011, Bestyboy wrote:
    Not in the least bit surprised by this apparent turn around at Mclaren. They've proved consisitently over the last couple of years to be the best team at massive in season development. "

    A bit like all those really successful updates they brought to their cars throughout last season?

  • Comment number 22.

    Well done for McLaren on a huge improvement on winter testing even if, like other people, I think RBR and Ferrari will still be ahead of you. Even if it won't be the fastest, it is still a huge improvement on being a mid-ranking team which was what their times and reliability over winter was suggesting.

    It all then makes you wonder whether they've fully got to grips with the limited winter testing rules. How can you have a package that is a whole second slower than the alternative package? I can understand if the models are fractions of seconds out from actual times, but if the relatively simple package is a second quicker then the 'octopus' package that has to cast huge doubts on their development process.

    Well done on catching up, silly fools for having to catch up in the first place.

  • Comment number 23.

    I'm backing Jenson to have a surprisingly good year and be the twist in this season's tale. He handles his tyres so well, and if the McLaren really has jumped forward as much as this practice session implies, he's in with a definite chance. I'd love to see him get a second title, almost as much as I'd love to see Webber get his first.

    Whatever happens, let's just be glad that this will be a more interesting season opener than Bahrain could ever have hoped to be.

  • Comment number 24.

    7. At 11:03am on 25th Mar 2011, sturogers wrote:
    The interesting point i've noted (that no-one else seems to have mentioned so far!) is that, with the application of the 107% rule, neither Virgins would have made it through in either session. Not looking so good for them!

    defaintly agree although id be more worried about the hispanias! they havent even set a single timed lap yet

  • Comment number 25.

    perez is going to be the surpise of the season!!!

  • Comment number 26.

    While we're at it, in case anyone from BBC web-team is watching, "Lotus-Cosworth" needs to be updated to "Lotus-Renault".

    Disappointing to see they're still about 1.5s behind the rest of the pack, much as they were by Abu Dhabi 2010. Was hoping they would have stepped up a notch from last year for this year's opener.

  • Comment number 27.

    McLaren have clearly made a huge step forward from where they were at in pre-season testing. Now, while there HAS been an improvement, and they seem now to be among the front runners again, Red Bull and Ferrari may well have more things to show.

    My passion always lies with McLaren, and if they can pull a victory off, I would be incredibly chuffed. However, if they can't, they're certainly not far behind, and an exciting season therefore lies ahead...

  • Comment number 28.

    24. At 13:15pm on 25th Mar 2011, bestchelseasteven wrote:
    7. At 11:03am on 25th Mar 2011, sturogers wrote:
    The interesting point i've noted (that no-one else seems to have mentioned so far!) is that, with the application of the 107% rule, neither Virgins would have made it through in either session. Not looking so good for them!

    defaintly agree although id be more worried about the hispanias! they havent even set a single timed lap yet

    Well, they've had one more lap this season than they did this time last year, and look how well they did then..... Oh, wait.... ;)

    It's a shame, but I can see this being their last season in F1.

  • Comment number 29.

    Delighted that Meclaren seemed to have pullled their finger out at the last minute, but I would be wary of reading into those times too much. The fact that Red Bull suffered more severe tire degradation (while in the past have been pretty good with tire wear) would point to them running on high fuel.

    I suspect there's a LOT more to come from the RB garage.

    How can anyone fail to love the smoke and mirrors of F1? Really looking forward to this season, its going to be a blast.

  • Comment number 30.

    Sure, not bad from McLaren but I think it will be at least qualifying (indeed the race - tyre degredation) before we see where the teams truly are relative to each other.

  • Comment number 31.

    Interesting watching the rear wing moving during the highlights. Goo djob neither of the Lotus teams have anything to do with the original one :-) They wouldn't have very good memories of movable rear wings last time they were allowed.

  • Comment number 32.

    Let's see where they all are after qualifying. Judgements based on P2 for the first race are rarely accurate.

  • Comment number 33.

    Before the weekend McLaren would have been bang happy with 3rd row on the grid for their drivers. I suspect they'd still take that given Red Bull and Ferrari's genuine pace and Mercedes straight line speed. But the P2 results are encouraging to suggest they're not too far behind. Clearly we can't read much into it, but the laps on the board are important for McLaren to further understand their car. One thing we don't know too much about is the tyres. It could well be that despite Red Bull's speed their tyres degrade quicker, we don't know. So that may be something to cling onto for McLaren.

  • Comment number 34.

    Despite how it may appear McLaren are not fools! They have some very innovative ideas and if they can be made more robust in future they may well represent a significant step forward. The octopus exhaust system in theory is an excellent idea providing exhaust gases across the width of the floor. These things have to be tried and eventually may yield fruit. I think they had the fallback simplified solution in place ready should the the more complex system not be effective. full Marks to them for turning it around so quickly. I can't wait for qualifying!

  • Comment number 35.

    Yeah, practice is never a good indicator of race pace.

  • Comment number 36.

    We often hear about teams holding back in practice... what's the point when there is limited testing and an opportunity for any team to impress their sponsors? Looking good for Button with broad concerns about tyre wear!

  • Comment number 37.

    A glory run on low fuel, red bull & ferrari are sandbagging.

  • Comment number 38.

    I do love the way so many keep talking about Red Bull and Ferraris genuine pace whilst constantly saying you can't really tell anything from practice. So, my question is, what do they know about RB and Ferrari's genuine pace. The answer based on their own words seems to be nothing.

  • Comment number 39.

    I am a McLaren fan and this is good news but we must not get carried away as most teams were testing various situations.

    Lest wait for actual race. Good luck guys

  • Comment number 40.

    People keep saying Jenson looks after his tyres better than anyone on the grid is Nonsense,every race is different so you can't use that logic for every time he steps into a car no matter what track he is on. With the new pirelli tyres being quick-wearing we will soon find out if this has been true. Well done Mclaren for putting in some good practice.

  • Comment number 41.

    Another 'fact' (much like "McLaren are great at developing their car through the season") I've seen repeated many times is how great Jenson is with his tyres. He'd better hope he can out-perform Lewis at a significant number of circuits this season, because he's starting to run out of excuses!

  • Comment number 42.

    As a Mclaren fan i am a lot more confident going into this race then i was a couple of weeks ago.

    However, i still believe Ferrari and especially Red Bull will have superior qualifying pace, and Mercedes also look strong.
    But it's not all about qualifying pace, and some drivers (Button) may be able to gain an advantage by careful driving. But the season will throw up more than it's fair share of surprises.
    I think drivers such as Kobayashi and Alguesuari have immense talent and could be the main upset causers this season, especially as Sauber and Toro Rosso look like they have both designed pretty handy cars. I wouldn't bet against the outside chance of someone like Kobayashi, Alguesuari or Barrichello picking up the odd podium early in the season, possibly a win if races are as exciting with tyres and overtaking as they have been predicted to be (this will suit Kobayashi i think).

    I may be completely wrong, but i think 2011 will throw up some fantastic races, shocks and i can't wait for qualifying tommorow to see where everyone is at, or the Race to see how everyone will cope!

  • Comment number 43.

    Is it just me or everyone also suspects that McLaren might have been calling the bluff of other teams. I suspect they knew where they had to be but kept it from everyone until now. I certainly think the body language across the team at the launch and in teasting suggest to me that they might be holding back on something. However it's good news as I would love our boys to turn the Red Bull over this season.

  • Comment number 44.

    Nice to see McLaren with a bit more pace, but not sure we have seen the best of Red Bull. Did Red Bull even do a fast lap on soft tyres using both KERS and the movable rear wing? For most of the session they were not using the movable wing (probably trying to see how the tyres will last in race conditions). I think they will only show the real pace in 3rd practice doing a proper qualifying simulation.

  • Comment number 45.

    I shall be keeping my eyes on qualifying tomorrow morning...will be very interesting to see how each team runs on qualifying set-ups, for a true pace guide.

  • Comment number 46.

    It seems as though the BBC have got pretty carried away about this perfomance.

    1) The McLaren times were set just before it started raining, so no one really had a chance to respond.

    2) It's reported that the chunk of missing rubber in vettel's tyre may have been caused by debris.

    and Thirdly and most importantly of all. It's only a practice session and as any fan knows, little or nothing and be gleaned from Practice times.

    For the record I'm a huge McLaren supporter.

  • Comment number 47.

    Red bull are obviously sandbagging and Ferrari will up their game when it matters most. So I still expect McLaren to be behind those two.

  • Comment number 48.

    Red Bull to have a front row lock out followed by Alonso, Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Rosberg, Button and Massa.

    Also is anybody else struggling to work out what tyres the cars are on. I can only tell when your on-board. The colouring system Pirelli have used is useless.

  • Comment number 49.

    As as McLaren fan(while the current driver lineup remains) it was great to see them top of the leaderboard in second practice. It wouldn't be the first time though that they've done that only to mess up qualifying. Let's not count chickens.

    Interesting though that Jenson edged Lewis in both sessions - wasn't expecting that.

  • Comment number 50.

    I'm no McLaren fan (for some reason, I support Sauber), but I'm pleased to see them dodge a bullet here. I agree that Red Bull and Ferrari have yet to play their hand, but the pace is encouraging.

    That Red Bull seems to be chewing its tyres up in record time. In this season of all seasons, that could be crucial...

  • Comment number 51.

    Seb will be on pole, we all know it! The car is the best and he is a tad quicker than Mark. Lets hope the weather can play a part on Sunday....... now I must shut my eyes as the alarm clock is set for 5am......

  • Comment number 52.

    Cant wait for the new season to begin. Schumacher to prove he is the master.

    Motihur Rahman

  • Comment number 53.

    This race tends to be chaotic at the best of times with it being early in the season, and a track that rubbers in to a far greater degree than most other circuits over a weekend. I think a prime example of the adage that 'to finish first, you first have to finish'. I think the only conclusion you can really draw so far is that Mclaren have sorted the gremlins with their reliability out, raw pace will only really be really measured after Sunday's race. The practice order is fun to speculate over but if you take Barcelona's 2nd test as a marker, they gone within a couple of tenths of last years testing times. Q1 pole last year was in the high 1min23s so you'd have to suspect the top teams will approach that, the best time is around 1.5 secs off, and it'll be a cars overall aero efficiency which will be fundamental in squeezing the last tenths out..

  • Comment number 54.

    I'm pleased to see the Mclaren's turn around in speed. What I am not pleased with is RBR dancing on the spot like a small child who has been given something good but wont tell what it is. I just dont like how shifty that team is at times, credit where its due if what it did in qualifying is legit (someone in the paddock will throw out the cheating line at some point shortly, hence why i say if its legit). I wonder how long before other teams start throwing their toys out the pram about this, accuse them of cheating or breaking the resources agreement. Down the grid the Hispania looks good on its tyres, neither driver complained in both practice sessio.......hang on......

  • Comment number 55.

    NEVER, EVER write McLaren off. There is a REASON why they are one of the most legendary teams in F1 history. Go on McLaren!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 56.

    So the McLaren did have decent pace after all.

  • Comment number 57.

    Note to the writer, the subject matter is all about McLaren, therefore there is no need to continually use their name, its laziness. Try exercising the mind into coming up with new ways, its far more rewarding. Also using the term the "English Team" is also unnecessary, like who doesn't know, your readers are all Motor Sport enthusiasts and you will find that they already know, where they are from.


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