No risk, no reward: Where flat McLaren is failing Ricciardo as bolder rivals race away

Norris burnt by McLaren's double stack | 01:00
Michael Lamonato from Fox Sports

For the third time this season McLaren failed to score points at the weekend.

The team’s Canadian Grand Prix performance was little short of a disaster, with neither car having the race pace of its regular midfield rivals — Fernando Alonso, after all, put his Alpine on the front row — and it was headlined by an embarrassing series of blunders that ruled it out of the points.

Ricciardo suffered a slow stop, which in turn held up Norris, who was double-stacked behind him, only for the Briton to find out his team had prepared the wrong tyres, costing yet more time.

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“It’s been a tough weekend in general, with the car lacking pace, having reliability issues and suffering an operational issue in the double-shuffle pit stop during the virtual safety car period,” team principal Andreas Seidl said.

“We have to acknowledge our competitors did a better job and therefore we didn’t deserve points today.”

It was undoubtedly an off weekend — particularly given McLaren has been one of the sharpest teams in pit lane in the last 18 months — but the shock of the low obscures the fact that McLaren has come completely off the boil in recent races.

It’s now regularly being outscored by Alpine and Alfa Romeo, and its place at the head of the midfield — the minimum expectation for one of the sport’s grandee teams — is under serious threat.

JUST HOW BAD IS IT?

The team’s Montreal non-score has left it extremely vulnerable in fourth on the title table, which it holds by just eight points ahead of Alpine — it would’ve been six had Alonso not been penalised for his late-race weaving — and 14 points ahead of Alfa Romeo.

McLaren’s trajectory this season paints a worse picture still. The team has been outscored by at least one of those two teams in four of the last five races and in all but three grands prix for the season: Australia, Emilia-Romagna and Monaco.

But in Melbourne Fernando Alonso lost a shot at the front row and good points to a hydraulics problem in Q3 and couldn’t score on Sunday, and in Emilia-Romagna he was taken out of the race by Mick Schumacher. In Monaco Valtteri Bottas lost crucial track time in practice to engine problems that left him out of position on the grid and ninth at the flag.

Moreover, McLaren’s points haul at those three races were inflated by the extra points on offer at the sprint in Imola, and without taking anything away from Norris’s excellent drive that weekend, he inherited the podium from Ferrari’s double misfortune that afternoon.

The results of that weekend are what’s keeping McLaren fourth and not teetering on the brink of sixth.

Since that weekend the team has scored 3.8 points per round to Alpine’s seven, and on that trend the French marque will take fourth spot before mid-season break.

Alfa Romeo is scoring 3.8 points per race, but it’s worth noting they’re almost all from Valtteri Bottas, who’s just four points behind Norris despite the Briton’s podium. Rookie Zhou Guanyu’s improving form will undoubtedly play a role by season’s end.

NOT ENOUGH RISK

Part of McLaren’s problem is that Alpine has more control over its overall package as an engine builder, and its ability to take greater risks with its 2022 car is clearly paying off.

It’s gone all-in on a brand-new power unit design before the engine freeze came into effect this season, with Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi having shaken up the motor design department in France to encourage the team to prioritise power over reliability.

Reliability, after all, can be fixed later, with the FIA able to grant exemptions to the engine freeze if teams can prove the modifications are not designed to improve performance.

Verstappen cruises to Canadian GP win | 02:13

“Push the envelope far and I don‘t care,” he explained, per Autosport. “I‘d rather have to dial down on the performance but know that I’ve reached the peak of the performance I can get than be reliable and just feel comfortable with a reliable engine that is not delivering performance.”

The team has also been bringing regular substantial updates to its car. It heavily revised its sidepods in Azerbaijan, and it’s due to bring another major package to the next race in the UK.

Reliability has suffered — Alonso retired from the points in Saudi Arabia and was down on power in Canada — but the team’s also been able to chase some morale-boosting, headline-grabbing results on other occasions, such as via Alonso’s standout one-lap performances.

Alfa Romeo has similarly had the benefit of Ferrari’s aggressively redeveloped motor — more on that below — and has clearly made good use of its underrated Swiss facilities to deliver a strong all-rounder car, particularly in the hands of Valtteri Bottas.

McLaren has made progress this year in terms of expunging some historical car traits that have held it back in recent years, but it’s come at the expense of a lower performance ceiling and floor. Alpine, on the other hand, has markedly better good days and notably better bad ones. Even Alfa Romeo’s non-scoring weekends have come only when at least one car has retired.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

FERRARI SHOWS WHAT’S POSSIBLE

But talking about McLaren’s prospects of losing fourth spot misses the bigger picture: it’s failed to join the frontrunners under the new rules.

Yes, the team played down expectations even before it hit the track, but expectation management is standard practice. Even Ferrari says it isn’t targeting the world championship this season despite having led both title standings for most of the year.

And Ferrari is the pertinent example, because remember that McLaren spent last season locked in a battle with the Scuderia, which was coming off the worst season in 40 years in 2020.

Woking finished last season 48.5 points behind Maranello. After nine rounds this season it’s 163 points adrift, never mind the gap to Red Bull Racing in the lead.

Year-on-year comparisons paint an even starker picture. After nine races last year it was third in the standings with 141 points. This year it’s fourth with just 65 points — a 53.5 per cent reduction.

Yes, Ferrari has a resource advantage in terms of its facilities, with an eight-year-old wind tunnel and brand-new simulator, while McLaren uses Toyota’s ageing Cologne wind tunnel and a simulator more than 20 years old, with upgrades to both not due until the end of this year.

Ferrari also had on average around five per cent more wind tunnel last season under the sport’s handicap development system.

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But the budget cap ought to have ironed out the sharpest edges of these advantages. At a minimum two teams starting in roughly the same place in terms of performance last season ought not to have diverged so dramatically this year.

Again the risk-reward ratio is at play, because if McLaren is losing out to Alpine due to the French team’s risk taking, Ferrari is using the same strategy exponentially more effectively.

“Let us say that, compared with past years, it has stimulated, even forced, us to go for even more daring design solutions given the significant time limits, in particular the coming freeze,” Ferrari power unit chief Enrico Gualtieri said ahead of the season. “We have had to take all our programs to the absolute limit.

“We have certainly had to take all the necessary risks.”

Ferrari has also come up with the most creative aerodynamic design under the new rules, arguably second only to Mercedes, as highlighted by its large concave sidepods. It’s a close match for Red Bull Racing, but it’s debatably been the quicker package at the majority of races this season.

McLaren may not have expected to have been able to follow Ferrari all the way to the top of the field, but it shouldn’t be so dramatically far behind.

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THE OUTLOOK

Fortunately for McLaren, the upcoming tranche of races is likely to be fertile ground to bolster its points haul. The car is at its best in medium and high-speed corners, which in a nutshell describes Silverstone, the Red Bull Ring and Circuit Paul Ricard, the next three races. Admittedly all cars under this new aero philosophy prefer this kind of set-up, but the MCL36’s fundamentally strong dynamics means it has little trouble accessing its full potential here.

But then comes the Hungaroring, which is slower and more tortuous and likely to cause some struggle. And Zandvoort and Monza await after the break to punish the car for its weaknesses is long slow corners and its drag down the straights.

And talking about McLaren’s strengths in this midfield battle ignores the fact that Alpine and Alfa Romeo have been underperforming for a variety of reasons so far this season, with reliability distorting both the form guide and the points tally. Plus Alpine has been improving in recent races, and if Zhou starts scoring more often as he feels his way into his rookie season, Alfa Romeo’s challenge will change completely in potency.

Fourth would already represent a step backwards for a McLaren with its sights set forward this season. After nine rounds, the odds appear stacked against it even managing that.