It was a trying opening day for McLaren with Jenson Button and Sergio Perez ending practice languishing in the midfield. The MP4-28 looked a handful for both drivers and there is clearly much work to be done ahead of qualifying if McLaren are to have a realistic chance of claiming a respectable haul of points from the season opener.
Surely after the opening practice sessions the team has redefined what they would view as “acceptable” from Australia and now if they can get one driver into the top six it will have rescued more from the weekend that their pace on the opening day would indicate.
Speaking after his trying day a disappointed Button was focused on the hard work that needs to be done:
“Clearly, we’re not as quick as we’d like to be, so our task now is to work hard to find out why our car is like it is, particularly in terms of ride and downforce,” he said.
“Our short runs weren’t particularly encouraging, to be honest. We’re a couple of seconds off the pace, by the looks of things, and that’s disappointing. But, in a situation like this one, all you can say is that there’s a hell of a lot of work for us to do – and that we’re well up for it. Qualifying won’t be easy, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to do a better job on Saturday than we’ve done today.”
The realisation that your team is off the pace is never easy but rain expected over the weekend Button could still have an opportunity to shine but it is clear that he will need fortune on his side if he is to have any hope of a strong weekend.
On the other side of the McLaren garage Perez also had a difficult and ended with the 13th fastest time in the second session. Having moved from Sauber in the winter there is always a settling in period to be expected but the Mexican is clearly confident in his new team’s ability to solve their handling woes:
“We’re struggling a bit, to be honest,” commented Perez. “We aren’t as competitive here as we’d wanted to be. But we’re working on it. Going forward, I know exactly how good Vodafone McLaren Mercedes’ technical guys are and there’s no doubt that they can close the gap to the cars ahead better and faster than anyone else.”
Perez also went on to remind reporters that “the Australian Grand Prix is only the first race of the season, and that there’s a long road ahead of us.” It’s very easy to read far too much into the opening day of any season and while McLaren are struggling at the moment there is little reason to expect them to continue to struggle for too long.
Their adaptation to push-rod front suspension has clearly put them behind the eight ball in terms of their understanding of the suspension setup in comparison to previous years but they will improve on this quickly. The MP4-28 is an aggressive design with the rear end cooling having been seen as particularly innovative and as a result the new car is quite different to the model that it replaced.
Team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, stressed this after the session by saying:
“You don’t win World Championships in the first Grand Prix of the year; you win World Championships by managing the progressive development of your car from its baseline in Australia in March until Brazil in November,” he said. “Our car is complex [and] perhaps we haven’t yet worked out how best to harness its potential, but we believe that potential is there.”
Whereas much of the rest of the grid are using small evolutions of last year’s cars McLaren have been aggressive over the winter. Time will tell if this was the correct call but the opening day showed that there is much work to be done at the team.