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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Why F1 may have another shock contender in Baku

by Mark Hughes
3 min read

This is nothing more than an informed hunch: but keep a particular eye on McLaren this Baku weekend.

As each track of the ’21 calendar is visited and the jigsaw of car performance builds, we now have a much better idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each car than we did after the first race of Bahrain – even if the picture is not yet complete.

The variations in car performance and in how their laptimes are derived through various corner combinations have been quite revealing. The sensational form of Ferrari through Monaco’s slow corners was a great example of this. It was clear already that it shone in slow corners, but who knew it was quite that good?

Now that we are heading to Baku, a track right up there with Monaco and Monza in the extremities of its demands, what might we see?

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Azerbaijan Grand Prix Qualifying Day Baku, Azerbaijan

Looking at the traits we’ve seen from each car so far, there is one which on paper is a very intriguing prospect at this venue: the McLaren.

Baku’s circuit demands big downforce for the slow Monaco-like middle sector through the old town but supreme aerodynamic efficiency down that long, long Caspian straight. Two totally conflicting demands: a mix of Monaco and Monza.

We know already that the McLaren is very impressive down the straights, with a great combination of Mercedes power and low drag for a given level of downforce. We know it can generate a lot of downforce relative to its opposition through high-speed corners. In both these areas, it’s shown itself to be comfortably better than the Ferrari, Alpine or AlphaTauri with which it usually competes.

It’s been not quite as impressive through the slow turns, where a slightly lazy front end has tended to see it struggle relative to Ferrari and Red Bull. In its performance patterns, it’s not dissimilar to the Mercedes. It doesn’t rotate quite so well as the Ferrari and Red Bull into the turns, meaning it takes a little longer to get from straight-ahead to pointing directly at the apex. Consequently, the McLaren typically requiring a little more steering lock to do so. The tougher, heavier ’21 tyres have tended to expose any weakness in this area in that the fronts are a little less responsive.

But Lando Norris showed at Monaco that he has a way of making this trait less debilitating than it might otherwise be. His natural feel for trail-braking and of how much pedal pressure to use for how long and the way he automatically adapts this according to the varying grip of the track and tyres is superb – and the principal area in which Daniel Ricciardo has been struggling to match him.

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So although the McLaren has a longer wheelbase, slightly lazier car than the Red Bull or Ferrari and is not at its best in slow corners, it responds very well to a driving technique that gets around the worst effects of that. Norris can somehow conjure reasonably quick rotation without it spilling over into rear instability – the usual slow corner limitation. At Monaco, with a car unsuited to almost every corner of the track, he trail-braked his way to a qualifying time within 0.274s of pole and within a couple of hundredths of the best Mercedes time.

If he can do something similar through the middle sector of Baku, the McLaren – with its great straightline performance – will surely do much of the rest. Depending upon how the whole Red Bull flexi-wing saga plays out and the usual Baku disclaimers about how much of a tow (hugely valuable here) everyone manages to find, McLaren is set to impress at worst. At best, it may even shock.

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