McLaren's Great Leap Forward In China: Genuine or a False Dawn?

Andy ShawCorrespondent IApril 17, 2009

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren Mercedes drives during practice for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2009 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The great surprise of the Friday practice sessions for the Chinese Grand Prix came in the first of the two periods, with Lewis Hamilton topping the time sheets.

Teammate Heikki Kovalainen was impressive as well, finishing the 90 minute session with the fourth fastest time; only the dominating Brawns of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello split the McLaren drivers.

McLaren's pace has been poor so far this year, with just a single point to show for their efforts in the first two races.

Kovalainen has not even completed a single racing lap, triggering a first-corner collision in Australia, and then spinning off all on his own in Malaysia.

Hamilton drove a canny race in Australia to inherit fourth after a late collision at the front of the field, which became third when Jarno Trulli was penalised for overtaking under the safety car.

But, as we all know, Trulli's penalty relied on false testimony from Hamilton and his team. When the deception was uncovered the following week, Hamilton was disqualified from the Australian results and the Italian was reinstated to third place.

With the "Liegate" controversy rumbling on, set to come to a head at an FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting on April 29, and long-time team principal Ron Dennis finally walking away from the McLaren motorsports operation yesterday, the Woking team really needed some good news this weekend.

Hamilton and Kovalainen have duly delivered, although questions must remain about whether this performance is genuine.

The final time sheets at the end of Friday practice sessions for a Grand Prix rarely tell the whole story. Much more is revealed by analysing the individual lap times of competitors, and trying to deduce what programmes they were running.

For McLaren, while their single-lap pace was impressive, they reached their best lap times only on a handful of occasions. For the rest of the session, they appeared much slower, perhaps by as much as a second.

McLaren are not a team with a reputation for low-fuel glory runs. Then again, having consistently been near the head of the field for a very long time indeed, they have never needed to deploy the "glory run" strategy before.

Brawn, on the other hand, were focusing only on long runs, exactly as they did in practice for Australia and Malaysia.

Moreover, the second practice session saw McLaren resume their usual (for 2009) position in the lower end of the time sheets; ninth place for Kovalainen and 13th for Hamilton.

Brawn were first and third in that session, maintaining their earlier pace but still not venturing into low-fuel territory.

Nearly everyone improved on their FP1 times in the second session, with the track "rubbering in" and gaining grip for the cars.

Therefore, it is difficult to know just how representative the times were in the earlier session, as the track conditions have already changed significantly since then and will continue to do so as the weekend progresses.

Hamilton is running a version of the controversial double-decker diffuser, this week finally declared legal by the FIA's Court of Appeal in Paris. Kovalainen, however, is not, so this cannot be the reason for both drivers' improved pace.

Both McLaren drivers are also using a new front wing prepared by the team, which could account for the team's apparent improvement.

However, a single aerodynamic development, at a time when all the teams are radically revising their cars, is unlikely to bring the car from the lower reaches of the midfield to the very sharp end.

Ferrari's decision not to use KERS this weekend, on a track with one of the longest straights on the calendar, is baffling to say the least, and the loss of pace associated with the removal of this device gives McLaren a head start over at least one of their competitors this weekend.

Renault are ready to deploy an "interim" version of their own double-decker diffuser, so although neither car impressed today, they will improve in pace as the weekend progresses.

The second session shows that the new "big four" of Brawn, Williams, Toyota, and Red Bull are still a long way ahead, and despite McLaren's early showing, it is not likely that they will be troubling these eight cars just yet.

On balance, therefore, little has changed for McLaren. They will be on the brink of some points for China, but will require a little luck to acquire them.