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McLaren faces major low-speed test in F1 Canada GP

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For years McLaren has been struggling with grip in long, low-speed corners – coupled with a lack of aerodynamic efficiency, which dented its top speeds.

Its much-heralded upgrades in 2023 in Austria and Singapore added plenty of performance through high-speed sections, making it arguably the second-best car on the grid on select circuits such as Qatar.

But even throughout this year, its weaknesses appeared to have largely carried over right until its first upgrade package in Miami, where Lando Norris ended up taking his maiden grand prix victory.

Looking at Miami, where McLaren had a fully upgraded car for Norris, half the upgrades for Oscar Piastri but Ferrari had yet to introduce its new spec, McLaren was fast in the few high-downforce corners but Ferrari was still king in terms of traction out of slow corners.

Ferrari's Carlos Sainz was also fastest out of the corners in Imola, but both he and Charles Leclerc lost a lot of laptime on the straights to both the Red Bulls and McLarens due to what was described as a wrong energy deployment strategy.

But curiously, while Ferrari was fastest putting the power down onto the straights and through Tabac in Monaco, the McLarens held up really well in some of the low-speed sections and were quicker than polesitter Leclerc through the hairpin and the chicane.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

"It looks like the car we took to Miami behaves well in low speed, almost beyond what was our expectation," team principal Andrea Stella said.

"Miami is dominated by low speed. And if anything in Monaco, the sector where we struggled the most was the first sector, a medium- to high-speed sector.

"So, it looks like the picture of our competitiveness is starting to finally change, where low speed doesn't appear anymore like a clear weakness."

More so than outlier Monaco, Canada will be the perhaps the best test of whether McLaren has achieved its objectives, given the prevalent combination of low-speed corners and long straights, where efficient drag levels are key.

With its many chicanes and long hairpins, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a loop that emphasises everything the team used to struggle with, without giving it the kind of high-downforce direction changes where it could have caught up.

Norris was cautious about the team's Canada prospects, with the high traction and ride compliance demands of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve likely favouring Ferrari, which has emerged as the best car on bumpy circuits, over Red Bull and McLaren.

"Our car has performed well at a few different types of circuits, but we know we might have our work cut out in Canada," Norris added. "Our comPetitors are likely to be strong here."

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Erik Junius

But Stella cautioned that McLaren still has "work to do" over kerbs and bumps, even if the resurfaced Montreal circuit should be slightly smoother than it used to be.

"We are not entirely satisfied with the behavior on kerbs, on bumps," he said.

"It will require some more fundamental development rather than simply adaptation of what we have available now in the car," Stella explained.

"Clearly we play with set-up, but we don’t seem to be able to achieve the same ride and kerbing performance that we see, qualitatively, on some other cars. And our drivers are pretty vocal that some other cars seem to be able to ride kerbs with more confidence."

Meanwhile, Stella was confident that the team hadn't robbed Peter to pay Paul and sacrificed its high-downforce prowess to fix its low-speed performance. The upcoming races in Barcelona and Spielberg will be the true test of that.

"It’s an objective of our development to make sure that we don’t compromise some strengths of the car because we’re chasing some other features," he said. "This isn’t possible all the time but ultimately this is part of the quality of the development that each team carries out."

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In 2023 the Canadian Grand Prix was the last race of the "old" McLaren before its game-changing upgrades came through for the following race in Austria.

Norris finishing ninth in a distant DRS train behind a Williams and an Alpine, before a five-second penalty demoted him to behind team-mate Oscar Piastri with both McLarens out of the points.

Twelve months on, the team's progress has made that scenario unthinkable. But on one of its historically weakest layouts, the Woking squad will now find out if it truly has an all-round package.

Additional reporting by Jon Noble and Stuart Codling

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