The team took a good step in the right direction last year by finishing third in the constructors’ standings, but that result came with some caveats.
First, and most importantly, McLaren was 371 points short of world champions Mercedes in the final standings. To put that number in context, the team that finished second overall and ahead of McLaren, Red Bull, scored 319 points in total.
And then there was the curious case of Ferrari, a team which has finished in the top three in nine of the last ten seasons but was tripped up by a winter-long investigation into the legality of its power unit. Wrist slapped and lesson learned, you can guarantee that the financial firepower of Ferrari will send it back up the standings in the coming seasons.
Finally, the fourth-placed team, Racing Point, would have beaten McLaren in the final standings had it not had 15 points deducted following an investigation into the design of its rear brake ducts early in the season.
As impressive as third place in the standings was for McLaren in 2020, it remains a precarious position from which to start talking about championships.
But McLaren has never hidden from the lengthily distance of its road to recovery. Key to its return to the front is the much-needed updating of infrastructure at its factory, notably the wind tunnel, which will not be finished or bear fruit for another two years. Fresh investment at the end of the last year has helped secure the building blocks, but they are not yet in place.
However, two very clear statements of the team’s intent will come into play this year and have already caused a great deal of excitement ahead of the new season.
The return of Mercedes engines, albeit as part of a customer deal, have rekindled memories of the mighty McLaren-Mercedes team of the late 1990s and 2000s. Add to that the arrival of Daniel Ricciardo and there is as much hype around McLaren as any of the top teams in Formula One this year.
The decision to switch to Mercedes power was originally scheduled to coincide with all new technical regulations in Formula One in 2021. However, the coronavirus pandemic saw the rules overhaul delayed until 2022, leaving McLaren with the task of shoehorning a new engine into an existing chassis.
The good news is that the Mercedes power unit is the best engine in the business. Since the current turbo-hybrid regulations were introduced in 2014, Mercedes has won every championship and, after increasingly close challenges from Ferrari’s suspect engine in 2018 and 2019, it was significantly improved last year with the promise or more power gains in 2021.
But that’s not to say it will guarantee podiums (or even points) in Formula One. Williams used a Mercedes engine throughout the 2020 season and failed to register a top ten finish in 17 races. Racing Point moved up the grid, but that was due to a chassis and aero design that mimicked the works Mercedes team and not the engine itself.
But what three-pointed star under the hood offers McLaren is the knowledge that if the team is capable of building a race-winning car, it won’t be let down by its power unit.
Yet switching engine supplier is no simple task — especially in 2021 when the rules require teams to recycle their 2020 chassis designs and limit winter developments under a token system.
Each power unit requires a different installation and the packaging — notably the positioning of the turbo’s compressor, which is at the front of the engine on the Mercedes and at the rear on the Renault — is quite different from power unit to power unit.
Although the results since 2014 suggest otherwise, there is no right or wrong answer to power unit architecture, yet adapting the chassis design to that architecture is crucial.
“I think that the power output is pretty similar across all manufacturers and track testing will show where we are compared to the others,” technical director James Key said when comparing Mercedes to Renault. “We know Mercedes has always been very strong on that but now it’s much closer than it used to be in the past.
“I think on the installation side there are pros and cons with the different architectures we have. You typically have the front-mounted compressor versus the sort of compressor-turbo on the real – that’s the most significant changes in terms of layout. I think the Mercedes installation is certainly extremely tidy, you can see how much attention into the detail has gone into it, so straightforward to pack, in that respect and that has given us a few plus points.
“Equally there are other demands in a few areas, that we had to adjust, so I guess there’s no one right answer to that. I think the different architectures have pros and cons in different sides but I think what has become clear is that the Mercedes installation is very good to work on.”
The freeze on chassis development means McLaren has had to use its ‘development tokens’ — essentially joker cards that allow teams to develop areas of the car despite the freeze – to adapt last year’s MCL35 to the new engine, while other teams are able to use them to focus on their weaknesses from 2020 and refine their designs.
“A lot of the components involved in the engine installation were frozen actually at the beginning of last season, when it began, so that obviously put us in a bit of a spot but of course there were allowances for that,” Key explained. “It meant we had to undertake what is a very different installation.
“Every installation is really quite different, there’s not one solution to how these power units are laid out, all the sizing of the various components can affect the car’s architecture. So, what we needed to try and do was respect the homologation process by not changing things that didn’t need to change in line with installing the engine, but clearly, making the changes we needed to with homologated parts.
“That allowed us to change the chassis, which of course has to change with a new engine and energy store, aspects of the gearbox for packaging purposes but after that it’s all identical to last year. The electrical system is completely different and of course the cooling system.
“Fundamentally the architecture of the car is quite different but the homologated areas of the car which we needed to stick to are as unaffected as possible. Amongst all the other challenges of trying to get this done, it added an extra dimension which provably led to a slightly sub-optimal approach compared to what you do if you’re completely free, but I don’t think it was that much of a compromise.”
What about the rest of the car?
Assuming McLaren has no major engine installation issues once its Mercedes-powered MCL35M hits the track, the bigger performance differentiator against the likes of Aston Martin, Alpine and Ferrari is likely to the car’s aerodynamics.
New rules this year have seen changes to the aerodynamic surfaces at the rear of the car aimed at cutting downforce and slowing the cars down. The change was introduced following a series of Pirelli tyre failures last year that rang alarm bells over the thought of letting the teams develop their 2020 cars for another year unchecked.
The biggest cut has come from a trimmed floor ahead of the rear tyres and the combination of all the changes should mean the cars start the 2021 season a fair chunk slower than they finished the 2020 season.
Despite the restrictions on chassis development, aerodynamics remained a relatively free area for development ahead of the start of this season.
The only area of the car McLaren was worried it wouldn’t be able to develop was at the front, so it hurried through a Mercedes-style nose cone at the end of last year to beat the cut off imposed by homologation rules from 2020 to 2021.
All teams dedicated serious aero resources to their 2021 cars last year as work on the 2022 was shut down to save costs. That ban on 2022 aero work was lifted at the start of this year, meaning teams will hope that their 2021 designs require as few modifications as possible to keep the focus on the next generation of car while still securing results this year.
It’s a balancing act faced by all teams on the grid and one McLaren must get right if its long-term plan of challenging for wins and championships is to be realised in the next regulation cycle. “Yes, I think it’s no secret and it’s the same for all teams, that we’re working as well on next year’s car, in parallel, James and his people, since the 1st of January,” team principal Andreas Seidl said. “I think what is important now — and everyone will try that — is to have a really good start of the season because that would obviously help with the decision to switch to next year’s car as quickly as possible.
“From our side we simply want to be competitive also this year, so that’s a decision we’ll have to take after the first races: how do we keep developing this year’s car?
“I think for our journey it is important to also have a good season this year, to keep this positive momentum up, but it’s also important to keep in sight the big picture as over the next years we want to simply close the gap to the teams in front of us, we want to be in a position we were some years ago, to fight for race wins, so I think it is important to use the new regulations, in 2022 — which are a big change — as an opportunity as well.”
One man who believes McLaren will get the balance right is new signing Ricciardo. The 31-year-old will partner Lando Norris, who enters his third season at the team, and arrives after two barren years driving for Renault.
He has signed a three-year deal with McLaren in the knowledge that doors were repeatedly closed to him at Mercedes and Ferrari in recent years and a return to Red Bull represented a step backward for F1’s most forward-looking driver.
As a result, Ricciardo has little choice but to put his trust in McLaren and do everything he can to help the team achieve its goals.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, so leaving Red Bull or leaving Renault, it’s obviously what I felt was right at the time,” Ricciardo said.
“Do I know 100% how it’s going to turn out? I don’t. But I certainly feel like McLaren has done the right things, particularly in the last few years, to set themselves up, for these rule changes coming in 2022.
“I think that next era of F1, has the ability to turn the field around a little bit. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve known up until now certainly excites me about where McLaren is heading.
“So it’s really that more than anything else. I really do believe in the personnel. I think Andreas is really helping steer this ship in the right direction. James as well, I got to work with James in 2013 at Toro Rosso, and that was fairly short-lived, by that summer I was already going to Red Bull. So looking forward to getting to work with him again.
“They’ve got more backing as well from the end of last year, some more investment. They’re expanding, I think they’re doing what it takes to be a real contender in the championship. Let’s do it!”
For all the excitement and change at McLaren this year, the focus on race wins and championship challenges needs to remain several seasons down the line.
Getting the most from the Mercedes power unit and Ricciardo will be essential if the team is to repeat last year’s third place finish in the championship, but of more importance will be introducing those two cornerstones to the foundations of the team’s long-term goals.
“Of course, in terms of driver line-up we will have one of the strongest in the paddock, we will have the championship-wining power unit in the back of the car,” Seidl said. “But we shouldn’t forget the battle we were in last year.
“We have a lot of respect for these competitors we were fighting with last year, we were fighting full works teams which have an infrastructure in place which is a lot more up to date compared to what we are having in place at the moment.
“That’s why we can be optimistic going into the season but at the same time we need to be realistic what is possible. We simply need more time in order to make sure we execute the plan we have in place in order to how we want to get back to the front.
“We need more time to get our infrastructure in place, to be on a more level playing field with the teams in front and also with some around us.
“The biggest topic is obviously the wind tunnel, it will still take around two years before we can see the first benefit of this new wind tunnel, which is crucial on the development side of the race car. And until then we simply have limitations.
“At the same time I think we can still make steps, even in the current circumstances, that’s what we’re working on.
“Our main goal is to simply make the next steps as a team, with the car, and the way we work together, we want to get closer again to Mercedes and Red Bull as these steps are key to get back to the front again at some point in the future.”