Jonathan Neale has insisted that McLaren-Mercedes is under no false illusions at Spa-Francorchamps ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend, well aware that the race is likely to signal the end of the squad's current purple patch of form.
Following defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton's superb victory in Hungary – the first of what has been by-and-large a torrid 2009 campaign for the Woking-based outfit – and the front row lock-out and runner-up spot for the British star in Valencia four weeks later, McLaren arrives in the Ardennes this week as very much the in-form team on the grid.
However, despite having triumphed in four of the eight most recent editions of the Belgian Grand Prix as McLaren-Mercedes – and on another eight occasions with different engine partners – the fast, sweeping, low-downforce nature of the circuit is not likely to favour the Mp4-24 as much as did the Hungaroring and Valencia Street Circuit. Whilst hopes are high for a respectable points-scoring result at Spa, McLaren Racing managing director Neale warns that any more than that might be a little over-ambitious.
“The car that we have now – the one we've started to develop from Germany – is very different from the car that we had in preceding races,” the Englishman stressed, speaking to Crash.net Radio
during a Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes 'Phone-In' session. “It's true to say that those slower average speed circuits – which tend to be your Monaco, Hungary and Valencia – were always likely to suit a car with the MP4-24's inherent performance characteristics, [so] the real answer is that we don't know what's going to happen at Spa.
“If it were based on the first four or five races, then we really struggled in the high-speed turns; the drivers reported that the car was unstable – particularly at the rear – and they didn't know where the car was, and for a driver that's pretty horrific. If you can't lean on the car and know that the rear end is really underneath you, then you're not going to be able to find 98 per cent of the grip level.
“The fact is the car is now more stable, much more planted at the rear end and the aggressive shadow diffuser that we've put on it and continued to develop does lock the car down and make it more stable, so I expect us to perform, compared to what we would have done, much better on a circuit like Spa, but there are other teams [to take into consideration] – and I look particularly at the performance of the Red Bull – and the likely climate. Watching the re-runs of Spa last year just reminded me that whatever team kit we've got, you wear everything because it's going to be cold and miserable probably! We certainly expect very changeable weather.
“I think Red Bull should be very strong. If Brawn have got over whatever was going on with their inability to heat the tyres up and keep heat in the them, then they will be strong too. If not, then I think we will see the Red Bulls pushing them further back. As for us, obviously our desire is to be right up there, but I'd be kidding you and us if I thought we were confident enough.”
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