McLaren in damage limitation mode at 'headache' track in China

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McLaren team boss Andrea Stella says the Woking-based outfit will head into this week’s Chinese Grand Prix focused on “damage limitation” due the Shanghai International Circuit’s characteristics.

Formula 1 returns to China for the first time since 2019, with successive rounds of the world championship repeatedly canceled in past seasons because of the Covid-19 health crisis.

It will be a learning experience of sorts for F1’s teams, as the sport’s current-generation cars have never raced at the venue, while their five-year-old data logs will likely be of little use to engineers.

However, McLaren will be facing its own challenges in Shanghai, on a 5.451 km track notorious for the type of slow-speed corners and hairpins that team papaya’s MCL38 significantly dislikes.

More specifically, Shanghai’s opening sequence of corners from Turns 1 to 4 – a complex section that features a series of slow, technical corners – will likely expose the MCL38’s lack of grip compared to its rivals.

"I have to say that of this first part of the season, China is the track that worries me the most from a competitiveness point of view," Stella warned, addressing the media in Japan last time out.

"You have so much low-speed, hairpins. Even in corner two, corner three, you spend so long in long corners.

"And I think it's been a theme I've been repeating. So far, we haven't been able to improve the car enough in these low-speed, medium-speed long corners.

"So from a competitiveness point of view, I would expect a more difficult situation than here in Suzuka, Australia and the first part of the season.

"China may be a bit of damage limitation for us. And then from Miami onwards, hopefully we start kind of a better stage of this 2024 season and more to come in the second part of the season."

The inclusion on next weekend’s schedule of a Sprint event will only add to McLaren’s challenges, although all teams will be in the same boat in this regard.

A new tarmac and just 60 minutes of practice before Friday afternoon's Sprint qualifying is a recipe for surprises, good or bad.

"Definitely it's going to be a challenging event, from several points of view. What is the tarmac situation will we find?” Stella questioned.

"At the same time, let's not forget that China was one of the most severe tracks for graining. So how will the tyres be able to cope with this?”

Stella reckons that any marginal relative outperformance will end up paying handsome dividends during the weekend.

"Seeing it in isolation, it gives a headache,” said the Italian. “But once you see it from a competitive point of view, I think you need to think: 'If I do not do a perfect job, but a little bit better job than others, then this could be a big opportunity'."