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Motor: Team preview: McLaren

It's hard to believe that it is now 12 years since McLaren last won the constructors’ title – so after the team’s radical new car failed to set the track alight in testing will it be another dry year in 2011?

The new McLaren was heavily anticipated this year after the team spoke regularly of planning its launch late to make the most of the extra development time and to enable them to hide their innovations from their rivals until as late as possible.

When it was unveiled, a few days after most teams had already had their new cars on track, it was indeed radical, with a relatively long wheelbase and U-shaped sidepods the obvious innovations, and many more under the surface which the team was not prepared to reveal.

Since it hit the track, however, its performance has not met the high expectations and although Lewis Hamilton said it handles “better than last year’s car” he also complained of a fundamental “lack of downforce”. Button, meanwhile, had to admit: “When I first jumped in it the first reaction was not 'wow, we're going to blow everyone away.”

In terms of design direction, McLaren focused on maximising downforce at the rear and lowering the centre of gravity, and both of these are helped by the use of the pullrod rear suspension, which has also been designed so that the drive shafts sit horizontally at static ride height to give maximum transmission efficiency.

To help the flow reach the rear of the car easily, the team has gone for a radical sidepod design – with a lower section closest to the driver and a tall outer section that creates a channel for the air to flow through smoothly to the rear beam wing and diffuser section. Meanwhile, the sharp undercut beneath the U-shaped sidepods steers more air around the sides of the sidepods.

This solution has also demanded an innovative approach to packaging the KERS system, and the team has created a single integrated unit located beneath the fuel tank, within the survival cell, with cooling coming from an opening beneath the main rollhoop intake. They also have another separate intake in this area for gearbox and hydraulics cooling.

The team is understood to have been testing two exhaust solutions to feed into the diffuser area, one fairly standard solution in which the exhaust feeds over the top of the diffuser and one that steers the flow from the exhausts out further forward. It remains to be seen which solution McLaren opts for when the season begins.

To further lower the centre of gravity, the nose is lower than most teams have gone this year, and this coupled with a different design approach to the front suspension enables the car to avoid aggressively angled suspension arms, which will help on bumpy circuits – something that McLaren has already been strong on in the past.

In terms of the new tyres, Button could benefit as he is traditionally gentle on tyres and can limit degradation by reaching a driving balance between attacking and preserving them. This helped him significantly during his title season with Brawn two years ago.

Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, has his mind partially on other things with a new personal management structure set up before the start of the season. In theory, this should take his mind off many issues and allow him to focus on racing – but it could prove distracting if things do not go smoothly from the off.

That has certainly been the case in terms of testing, and McLaren have not only struggled getting parts to the circuit they have also lost time to reliability issues.

Before the final test in Barcelona, McLaren had done just 2,577km with their new car compared to the 5,221km achieved by Ferrari and 4,407km Red Bull had run. Every lap counts in testing, and although this was down to the delayed start it is still a lot to catch up.

That said, if the initial teething problems do shake out quickly, then the new McLaren has the innovative base to grow into a title contender this season – and with Button and Hamilton at the wheel they have the right men to make things happen if it does.

Every day leading up to the start of the F1 season, Will Gray will be breaking down a different team's prospects for 2011.

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