The flight back from Melbourne is always a long one. And always feels longer if your weekend hasn’t gone smoothly.
Long-haul flights back are always tough – all that pre-event adrenaline and enthusiasm has left your body, and you just want to get home. Our recent homeward journeys from Australia haven’t been that comforting. And, for the avoidance of doubt, they’ve all felt very, very long…
While this year’s trip wasn’t any quicker than in previous years, it certainly felt easier, which is perhaps partly explained by it being our first points-scoring Australian Grand Prix since – incredibly – 2014.
Overall, it was a positive weekend for the whole team. Let’s get the few negatives out of the way first: the excessive garage-time during FP1 to fix a couple of niggling problems was annoying, and the lack of pace in Q2, when both drivers didn’t really get the maximum from the car for a number of reasons, left a perception that the car was lacking top-10 pace. Those lap-times weren’t representative, we felt.
Nor, for that matter, were the tests in Barcelona. While that circuit is an extremely useful venue for testing the holistic performance of a new Formula 1 car, the resurfaced track and the cold weather meant that it couldn’t provide an accurate assessment of pace. We saw a clearer picture in Melbourne, on a more typical track surface and with higher track and ambient temperatures.
Our aim going in to Melbourne was to have an operationally smooth weekend. After the difficulty and disruption of winter testing, we didn’t have the mileage or the reliability to feel fully confident about the MCL33; that meant we didn’t go into the weekend with an overly ambitious test and evaluation test programme, or with an aggressive approach to either qualifying or the race.
That slowly helped us gather momentum over the race weekend. While FP1 was tricky, our long-run pace in FP2 was encouraging, and, in FP3, we were among the fastest runners when the track was wet or damp.
And the attendant upswing in reliability was largely achieved through sheer hard work. There was a massive effort from the hard-working men and women at the factory to identify and address the faults we encountered during two difficult weeks of testing, and to get things right for the opening race.
Our niggles in FP1 were a timely reminder that we’re not quite there yet (and there’s absolutely no complacency in that area, believe us), but the smooth running we experienced for the rest of the weekend was a comforting reward after all the hard work. We’ve made some cautious progress with cooling, too, although we’re still vigilant in that area.
While there was plenty of fuel and engine-saving during Sunday’s grand prix (which looks set to be the norm for racing in 2018), we took every chance that came our way in the race, which meant we left with two points-scoring finishes, and a healthy 12 points on the board. To put that in perspective, it took us until Singapore last year to achieve that same tally…
For the next race in Bahrain, we’ve got some more new parts to evaluate during free practice. Development throughout the season will be crucial: we saw in Melbourne that the midfield is particularly tight, and a bad performance, a mistake, or a loss of momentum will be capitalised upon by a handful of closely matched teams.
There’s still more to come: some new parts, upgraded power unit components, some operational improvements and further cures for some spotty reliability, but, overall, the car worked – it had useful balance and pace, and has been delivered to the brief of providing the drivers with a wider operational envelope within which to push for grip and assurance.
So while there was no cheering or back-slapping in the McLaren garage after Sunday’s race, there were a few handshakes between team members and some relieved smiles. But, make no mistake, McLaren doesn’t go racing for points finishes. So while Sunday’s result may have offered some comfort, it’s merely a waypoint in a far bigger and longer journey towards the front.
And, more importantly, the journey to the next few races can’t come sooner…