McLaren, a team gaining momentum with Lando Norris securing podium finishes in five out of the last six races before Las Vegas, surpassed Aston Martin in the constructors' championship battle for P4 two weeks ago.
Following a promising FP3 session where Oscar Piastri finished in P2, McLaren approached qualifying for the Las Vegas GP with optimism.
However, Saturday proved to be one to forget as both McLaren cars were eliminated in Q1, with Norris finishing in P16 and Oscar Piastri in 19th position.
The race, if anything, went even worse for the Brit – picking up a couple of places thanks to the chaos at the first corner, but crashing out in a big way a couple of laps later to end his weekend.
Piastri finally found some pace on the hard tyre, but still finished just 10th.
What happened in Vegas?
The impact of the track reopening to road traffic overnight was evident in the third free practice session. The condition of the track surface underwent a significant reset, leading to a noticeable decrease in lap times as the track continued to evolve.
This trend persisted into qualifying, to the extent that by the session's conclusion, the fastest time was not far off from what had been predicted by earlier simulations – and in the race, where the ice rink at the first corner improved as the race went on.
As anticipated, the track proved slippery due to the absence of any support series racing on the street circuit. The primary challenge faced by teams was achieving the optimal temperature for their tyres to unleash performance.
Teams experimented with various strategies to bring their tyres into the right temperature window in qualifying, with some opting for two out laps before their push lap.
Surprisingly, the Las Vegas Circuit posed greater challenges for McLaren than initially expected. Norris narrowly missed advancing to Q2, falling short by a mere 0.020 seconds and securing 16th.
Meanwhile, teammate Oscar Piastri faced a more significant setback, qualifying 19th.
What did the drivers say?
Despite his disappointment with the outcome in qualifying, Norris pragmatically acknowledged that the struggles of the MCL60 at the circuit were not entirely surprising.
In response to his Q1 elimination, he candidly admitted feeling 'not great' but emphasised that the car's pace throughout the weekend aligned with the team's expectations.
The overall performance fell short of McLaren's recent standards, contributing to a challenging weekend.
Piastri expressed some surprise at his lack of pace during qualifying, particularly considering his earlier strong performance in FP3, where he secured second position on the timesheets.
Despite starting well in the qualifying session, he speculated that the team's decision not to use two sets of tyres might have impacted their overall performance.
According to the Australian, the initial laps of qualifying were promising, with the car consistently in the top five. He attributed the suboptimal outcome more to the team's run plan rather than an issue with the car's pace.
Analysing the challenging aspects of the circuit, Piastri highlighted the combination of long straights and tight corners, emphasising the difficulty of getting the tyres into the optimal temperature window.
Remaining optimistic about the car's overall pace, Piastri acknowledged the importance of avoiding pitfalls on such a demanding circuit and expressed determination to give their best effort in the upcoming race.
Despite the deviation from the expected plan, he remained confident in the team's capabilities.
Piastri might have been right
Piastri's slower performance in qualifying compared to his FP3 run was atypical, and suggests that the run plan may have been the underlying issue, particularly on his side of the garage.
Typically, drivers exhibit a notable improvement in qualifying times compared to their best FP3 performances.
His pace on the hard tyre in the race also suggested that the McLaren's underlying pace was actually pretty solid, with only his second pitstop to move onto medium tyres preventing him from getting a good haul of points.
Shubham Sangodkar is a former F1 Aerodynamicist with a Master's in Racing Car Design specialising in F1 Aerodynamics and F1 Data Analysis. He also posts aerodynamics content on his YouTube channel, which can be found here.
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