Test Drive Tuesday review: 2011 McLaren MP4-26
In 2011 McLaren once again showed the F1 world how innovative they were. Following the banning of the double-diffuser, an aggressive design route was taken to retrieve some of the lost downforce at the rear of the car, in the form of intriguing U-shaped sidepods. Letting clean, undisturbed air flow from between the front wheels to the rear of the car, this feature helped maximize the aero characteristics of the rear wing and the diffuser. Furthermore, an impressive work was done to optimize the new exhausts helping the diffuser to work more efficiently. Combine with a raised and heavily sculpted nose-cone which channeled more air underneath the car, the team managed to lose only around 15% of downforce, making the MP4-26 a serious candidate for the championship. 2011 was also the year Pirelli tires were introduced, posing an additional challenge to all of the team, and to the drivers who now had to make do with tires lasting only a dozen laps.
If you read last week’s review about the MP4-25, you know how much of an impact aerodynamics can have on an F1 car. It was no surprise then, to find that the MP4-26 is more oversteery and relies more on mechanical grip. Overall, the car lost a bit of rear stability, which can show in heavy braking, and even more so when the car isn’t exactly straight, or “dynamically challenged”, like at T1 at COTA. Following a massive elevation change, the car suddenly feels very light, and if you come in too hot, the rear will come around and force you into a spin. Exiting this T1 you’ll face another challenge as the track drops away from you precisely when you need to apply maximum throttle. And once again, things can get a bit messy if you’re not careful.
Now, I’m not saying that the car is as much a handful as the MP4-29 is. But the 2011 car is certainly a more difficult car to drive at the limit that its predecessor, which was a leading example of stability at all time (and at all costs, causing a bit of understeer). If you had to that more fragile tires and a slower top-speed due to the ban of the F-duct you’ll quickly understand why the car is nearly 3 seconds slower than the MP4-25 around COTA. But it doesn’t mean it’s much less fun. I for myself like a more challenging car.
In fact, if you still want to drive “an F1 car”, and feel how cool it is to hot lap and race these, you won’t be disappointed. Driving a high-downforce car is a joy as much as a challenge: you’ll be pushed to explore your own limits, trying to go flat in that corner (amazingly, the “Loop” at Watkins Glen can be taken without lifting!), to brake 10 meters later… It all feels superhuman, fantastic. The very short life-span Pirellis will bring a new dimension to all your hot-lapping sessions, as will the very optimistic fuel gauge (I did 4 laps out of the predicted 10 at Watkins Glen). Racing against yourself will become that bit more exciting… Or frustrating. It depends on what you expect from an F1 car.
Conclusion: the MP4-26 is a perfectly fine example of F1 glory. But if you’re after the definitive V8-era F1, I’d go for the 2012 MP4-27, which, while still not exactly making up for the lost downforce of the double-diffuser, is a more predictable and intuitive drive, and more involving than the placid MP4-25.
Here is the link to the Test Drive Tuesday Leaderboards: https://goo.gl/ATr6mF