Why was McLaren MCL38 so fast in China?

Jaden Diaz, Piergiuseppe Donadoni

Before arriving in China, Andrea Stella was clear that the Shanghai circuit might not suit the MCL38. “There are too many low-speed sections and many sharp bends, so we will go to China to limit the damage,” the McLaren team principal outlined. This was then repeated even after qualifying and by Lando Norris himself at the end of the race. Norris admitted that he expected to be 35 seconds behind Ferrari in Shanghai.

Instead, the MCL38 was actually second-fastest. They were the closest challengers to Red Bull, with Norris even managing to finish ahead of Sergio Perez.


The Chinese GP’s absence since 2019, in addition to the presence of the first Sprint of the season and an asphalt with some ‘oddities’, suggested possible surprises.

“We had many doubts about what we would find in China because we hadn’t raced there for many years,” stated Andrea Stella.

“On the tracks we raced on last year, especially if we go there with the same compounds, it’s not difficult to anticipate pre-weekend what could happen. But this was not the case in China.”

Last represented an unknown, which the Italian team principal outlined after the Suzuka GP.

The Sprint Race did not feature any major surprises. Max Verstappen was comfortably in first whilst Ferrari were second-fastest. Tyre warm-up proved the Italian outfit’s biggest limitation.

We didn’t think we’d go so fast in the Main Race. Because, in all honesty, you saw in the Sprint that we didn’t have a race pace at the level of Ferrari,” said Andrea Stella.

“That was in line with what we expected before arriving in China, so we were a little surprised at our pace in the Sunday race.”

McLaren was slower than Ferrari in the Sprint, suffering from overheating at the rear, leading to significant degradation.

“There was a lot of talk about possible graining at the front. But the problem to be managed in China was overheating at the rear, he explained. 


At the start of the season, McLaren has proven effective at activating its tyres in qualifying. The new tyre allows the MCL38 to eliminate its most important weak points, while when it comes to race pace, the performance is a little lacking compared to the Ferrari, especially if the temperatures are high. It cannot be forgotten, however, that the MCL38 has never been too far from the SF-24 on average. McLaren was certainly closer than the Maranello car was to Max Verstappen.

Yesterday, however, the orange car was undeniably second-fastest. This is partly due to track temperatures (30 degrees), which were not overly punishing on tyres.

“I think that the track conditions and the cold, the fact that there was no sun, helped us keep the temperature of the rear tyres under control. Therefore, we were able to exploit the strength of the car, as in qualifying,” Stella explained.

However, the setup changes made between the Sprint and qualifying were also of great importance. In theory, the changes made on Saturday should have compromised their qualifying performance. However, the MCL38 performed well in both high and low-fuel conditions.

“We were really surprised by our performance in qualifying after the set-up changes we had made because they should have penalized us on the flying lap,” confirmed the Italian engineer.

Therefore, it was no miracle that caused the super performance McLaren showed in China. Instead, many small but decisive factors accumulated and made the difference. One important variable was the Safety Car, which complimented Lando Norris’ strategy.

“The safety car was useful to gain the position on Perez, but I would say that we were already very competitive even before the safety car,” Andrea Stella rightly stated, given that the move on Medium was already second strength.

The second Red Bull driver ended up behind Leclerc’s Ferrari during his second stop. According to the world champion team, this prevented Perez from managing his tyres. Instead, he wasted tyre life trying to overtake the SF-24. Thus, it did not allow it to catch Norris once he had passed the Ferrari driver.