From Motorsport.com PRIME
Why McLaren's Spain hopes are based on a myth
By: Edd Straw, Journalist
McLaren has promised that its "real" 2018 F1 car will appear at this weekend's Spanish GP. The evidence from the same marker point in previous years suggests hopes of a significant step in performance will be wide of the mark.
An illusory truth is one that's held to be self-evident because it has been repeated so many times that it becomes unchallengeable. Is there any more dependable trope of this kind in Formula 1 than the magical Spanish Grand Prix upgrade package?
McLaren's promise that "the 2018 car is coming to Barcelona" has raised expectations of a transformative weekend for the struggling team, despite other attempts out of Woking to downplay expectations. But history shows the game-changing Spanish GP update is more myth than matter.
Spain's status as the race where the first big upgrade package of the season is deployed was cemented when Imola's San Marino GP dropped off the calendar after 2006. Since then, Barcelona has always been the first European race of the season. Turkey did slip in ahead of it in 2011, but that was held on the Asian side of Istanbul so that is disregarded.
There are valid reasons why Spain is a logical race for a big package to be introduced. Firstly, it's close to home for the Europe-based teams after what is usually a busy run of races. This year, the first four flyaway races were held over six weeks, although it would be wrong to suggest upgrades haven't flowed for all teams during that period because they have.
Secondly, Barcelona is a great test track. Pre-season testing took place there and, although temperatures varied from freezing to lukewarm in February this year, it's also the ideal place to compare your car against the benchmarks established ahead of the season.
It's a highly-downforce dependent circuit in terms of how laptime is produced, with long, quick corners as well as a bit of slow stuff that puts a car through its paces, and it's also a representative track amid a sea of outliers. This is a good place for getting on top of the set-up impacts quickly because there is no circuit on the calendar that teams know so much about.
Early in the season, Bahrain's Sakhir circuit is perhaps the most conventional layout, while Albert Park and Baku are highly unusual. And following Spain are Monaco and Canada, another two odd tracks. There will be Monaco and Montreal-specific parts, and there's six weeks until F1 visits its next 'orthodox' track for the return of the French GP at Paul Ricard.
So this all points towards going for Spain as the key point for deployment of major packages, the kinds of packages that could lead to major shifts in the way the car works. Remember, it's not just about bolting on downforce, for every change can influence key characteristics such as how the aerodynamic centre of pressure moves, ride heights, suspension movement, braking stability - basically the whole gamut of vehicle dynamics far too long to list here.
Like McLaren, Williams is also a team in need of a boost. But chief technical officer Paddy Lowe points out it's not quite as simple as bolting on performance and jumping up the order.
"We have got quite a lot coming to Spain," he says. "Of course, it is traditionally the place where everyone else brings a lot of stuff, so I am not necessarily expecting the order of things to change hugely in Spain, we have a lot more work to do beyond that."
This is why a game-changing package is not necessarily so easy to achieve. In order to gain ground, you not only need to make a gain with your car, but do so by a greater margin than your competitors.
But Lowe does confirm that there is veracity to the suggestion that, even among the ongoing development push with all teams bringing at least some new parts to most, if not all, races, Spain is a focal point.
And it's also a helpful thing for teams to point to. After all, in pre-season testing they all say the real order won't be set until the first race of the season. Then, once in Australia, everyone starts talking about Spain. It's a good way to deflect too much criticism if things have started badly.
"I think it is the same as it has always been," says Lowe of the truth of the Spain package. "They [the teams] do talk about it a lot, but they do bring stuff all the time anyway.
"Some of it is just practically easier because the overseas freight follows a path. Back in Europe it is easier to bring in bigger quantities of new stuff and the timing works. It's a bit of a curiosity that people land on Spain as their big upgrade mark."
So while it would be a mistake to assume nothing has changed in the early races and everyone throws the kitchen sink at the cars in Spain, it is clear that Barcelona has some significance on the technical front. But what does the historical data tell us about the chance of an upgrade transforming a season?
Motorsport.com's 'supertime' data is generated by taking each team's fastest single lap of a grand prix weekend and expressing it as a percentage of the outright quickest. These can then be averaged out over sets of races, giving equal weighting to each weekend. Comparing the average performance over each season's first four races with that at Barcelona from 2010-17 gives 89 separate data points, and of those only 25 show a team being closer to the outright pace in Spain than over the first four races. That's 28% of the time.
Barcelona is not always the fairest track for establishing the overall order, because it's a circuit where gaps can be distorted given the extreme downforce dependency even in F1 terms. So it's perhaps fairer to compare the four races before Spain with the four that follow. Even then, the figure only rises to 36, or 40% of the time. The average performance swing at Barcelona compared with the first four races of the season is just 0.294%. And when you compare the first four races with the four-race run starting with Spain, the average performance swing is close to zero.
To that we have to add the caveat that measuring all teams against the frontrunning team is a limited source of information, because inevitably the leading team (usually Red Bull or Mercedes during this period) will generally be aggressive in terms of their upgrade rate.
Ignoring pure performance, it's also rare for there to be substantial changes in the order. McLaren is ranked seventh for performance based on the average of the first four races, so in order to move to the front of the midfield at the Spanish GP it requires a three-place jump. These are rare.
In 2012, the order was scrambled dramatically at a stage of the season where teams were bamboozled by tyres, leading to Pastor Maldonado taking pole position for Williams (albeit only after Lewis Hamilton and McLaren were stripped of it). But other than that season, it's only last year that we see significant changes.
Then, Force India jumped from an average position of eighth to fifth, and encouragingly for McLaren it leaped from ninth on average to fourth best. This was down to a combination of factors, including a Honda power unit upgrade that included a new air intake, aerodynamic developments and a track configuration that better suited the car.
This represented a remarkable gain of 1.093% relative to the front, and over the four races starting with Spain a gain of 0.818%. So there are cases when more significant gains can be made. Currently, the gap from McLaren to fourth-best Renault is 0.815%, so there is some cause for optimism there.
But it should be added that it slipped down to eighth fastest on average during that four-race run, which supports the view that Barcelona was an outlier that suited McLaren's strengths. McLaren should certainly be relatively stronger in Spain this year, but what really matters is the sustained performance level delivered.
Last year was also the first season of a new set of aero rules, so the Spanish GP was always likely to shake up the order a little more than would normally be the case. There's arguably less scope for such a big step this year, especially as McLaren has had it more together in the first four races of this year than it did in 2017.
Then, of course, there are also engine upgrades. The current restrictions on power unit components mean race five is out of faze with the ideal deployment of such upgrades, so there are shouldn't be any significant hardware changes in Spain.
So from a car perspective, even with the backlog of components originally due for the start of the season, it's most realistic to expect McLaren to make a solid step, but not a transformative one. This will not just be down to McLaren, but also Renault.
Renault and McLaren will both benefit from a BP/Castrol fuel upgrade that should unleash a little more performance from their power units. Red Bull uses ExxonMobil fuel, so will not be in this position.
There's also a little power, reckoned to be in the vicinity of 15bhp, that could still be unleashed by Renault but that has been held back amid reliability concerns. But it's less clear when that might be deployed.
Given McLaren has looked stronger in race trim than qualifying, there's also the likelihood that more performance can be gained from getting the best out of the Pirelli tyres on Saturday afternoons. Potentially, that could have a bigger impact on McLaren's overall performance than the upgrades.
Realistically, there are no quick fixes in F1 anymore. The days when relative performance levels used to readjust significantly over the early races of the season, perhaps when brand new cars were introduced, have faded.
The only way to climb the order for a team like McLaren is constant improvements and making improvements step by step. Magic bullets simply don't exist.
If McLaren does make some small gains this weekend, say up to 0.5% compared with the front, then it will be to its credit and should make it a more capable midfield performer. But given that McLaren has pointed to Red Bull as its benchmark, it will be the gap to the big three that is more significant. Its 1.88% deficit to Red Bull over the first four races is a performance swing that has never been made in Spain from 2010 to '17.
Should McLaren make more spectacular gains, it will have bucked the overall trend and may be close enough to achieving the performance level required to be fourth in the constructors' championship on merit rather than by stealth.