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Is it panic time at McLaren?

Pre-season testing for McLaren was bad, but the season-opening race was even worse

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F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Following three days of pre-season testing last week at Bahrain International Circuit, McLaren looked like they had a lot of work to do to catch up to the rest of the Formula 1 field at the start of the 2023 season.

After the first Grand Prix of the calendar, their situation has not improved.

McLaren endured a disastrous start to the F1 season, with rookie driver Oscar Piastri enduring an electrical issues that ended his first race on the grid after just 17 laps. Teammate Lando Norris did not fare much better. Norris began the Grand Prix in 11th position, and slid all the way back to 20th by lap 11. He ended the day early as well, completing just 55 laps and finishing 17th.

Norris also needed six pit stops — the most of any team — to even get that far in the race.

Now the team is left searching for answers, answers that they could not find during pre-season testing, nor during the event itself.

Piastri’s issues appeared early in the race. He stayed out the longest out of any of the drivers in the field, which moved him up to 12th on the grid, but an electrical issue soon took shape. Attempts to rectify the issue by changing out his steering wheel in the pits, failed, and he was forced to retire.

Team Principal Andrea Stella explained after the race that the attempted reset — via a new steering wheel — did not work because the electrical failure was further down the line. “The electronic damage was further down the line around the steering column,” he outlined. “So, the steering wheel wasn’t the problem. It was a problem with the harness probably. We are investigating. Not fixable in a short time.”

“Obviously not the finish to the weekend that I wanted but there are positives to take, and the car seemed to have better pace in the race,” said Piastri after his F1 debut. “I still learned a lot and I’m glad I’ve now made my debut, and experienced some of the F1 race weekend firsts. I’m now looking forward to having a better weekend in Saudi Arabia.”

As for Norris, his problems started early as well, and showed up even earlier than those that plagued his teammate. Norris noted that his MCL60 developed a pressure leak with the engine pneumatics on the opening lap of the race. That required him to pit every ten laps or so, so the system could be refueled.

“A very tough race,” explained Norris after the Grand Prix. “We had a few issues we had to manage, which really took us out of the race but we tried to stay in it for as long as possible, just in case there was a Safety Car or something and we might have had a chance at the end.”

“There was a pneumatic pressure leak on Lando’s car. We discovered this leak relatively soon in the race, shared Stella. “Then we knew that it was possible only to do 10, 11 laps each time before having to refill.”

The reliability issues saw McLaren finish without points in Bahrain, one of three teams to leave Sakhir without points. AlphaTauri and Haas are the other two teams at the bottom of the table, along with McLaren. But while issues for those two teams were expected entering 2023, McLaren — who finished fifth a season ago — were hoping to challenge for the top of the midfield.

Now, however, they’re just hoping to make it to the third stage of qualifying, an issue that the team highlighted following pre-season testing. “I think we will see again that the midfield is very compact,” said Stella after testing. “And this means that if you don’t do a good enough job, even in setting up and maximising what you have, you may struggle to get out of Q1. At the same time, you might be a Q3 contender.”

Now, Stella is putting his hopes into continued developments for the MCL60. “The main limitation that we have at the moment is aerodynamic downforce. Obviously we can improve the rate of development in the car by having better infrastructure, by having more workforce and this is why we are having the investments that are ongoing now at McLaren,” said Stella after the Bahrain Grand Prix. “However, I think that for the level of talent and availability we have at McLaren already, we can recover and we can out-develop other teams because what we see in development right now is a very alive car in terms of development.”

However, those much-needed reinforcements are not arriving overnight.

“There are some areas of the car that seem to be able to generate good downforce, like I’ve said already, they were not ready in time to be part of the launch spec,” added Stella. “But this car will evolve pretty much race-by-race, with some major upgrades that will come, the first one around race four.”

Until then, however, it might be nervous days around McLaren.