The uncertain target McLaren faces in F1 2021

McLaren is in a tricky position in 2021. Finishing third again is really the minimum target after 2020, but that could even be too much to ask for amid strong competition from the likes of Ferrari, Aston Martin, or Alpine.

The uncertain target McLaren faces in F1 2021

So what can a resurgent McLaren Formula 1 team achieve on its return to Mercedes power in 2021?

That's one of the many intriguing questions yet to be answered as we head into what promises to be a fascinating season, one that will unfold under the sport's first budget cap, against a background of new aero testing restrictions, and with the massive challenge of the 2022 rules looming on the horizon.

Under the guidance of team principal Andreas Seidl and technical director James Key, the team has made genuine progress in all areas over the past few seasons.

The team regained the confidence that was so lacking in the Honda era, and the numbers tell the story.

After a disastrous ninth place in the constructors' championship in 2017 - the final year with Honda - McLaren made steady progress over its three years with Renault, moving from sixth to fourth to third in 2020.

Further pieces of the puzzle have now fallen into place. The switch to Mercedes allays any doubts on the power unit side, and it puts the team on a level playing field with the world champion team.

Meanwhile, the incoming Daniel Ricciardo brings the extra knowledge and confidence that comes with being a race winner, along with an upbeat personality that will help to maintain the positive atmosphere that the team established with the Lando Norris/Carlos Sainz partnership.

The challenge for McLaren now is to maintain the momentum that it has established – and head into the new world of 2022 in the strongest possible position.

However, it's obvious that even repeating third place won't be easy, as Aston Martin, Alpine and a rebuilding Ferrari will all be in the mix, as the team well knows.

"First of all, obviously, it was a great achievement for us to be P3 last year," says Seidl.

"Going into this year, we expect again a very tough battle with all the competitors who we were fighting with last year.

"We have Lando now going into the third year in F1. We have Daniel on board with us, who is a key reference in this sport.

"We have the championship-winning powertrain at the back of our car. It is clear we want to again get closer to the cars in front of us, to the Mercedes and the Red Bull cars, which we managed also last year.

"And at the same time, we will give it all until the last lap in Abu Dhabi. I think there's a lot to be optimistic about. And we need to be realistic. And that's how we see it."

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CEO Zak Brown agrees that the focus is not so much on championship positions as closing the performance gap to Mercedes and Red Bull.

Given that the plan is to return to contention for race wins and titles, looking ahead rather than sideways – or even backwards – is a logical approach.

Many see Aston Martin as the obvious benchmark for McLaren, given their proximity in last year's championship and shared power unit supplier.

"Well, we're going to keep our eyes on all the competition," says Brown. "I think it would be naive to underestimate any of the competition. It was so close last year.

"So our goal is to close the gap to the front. We're not focussed on any one particular team, or who's got what power unit. We want to be the best of the customer teams [but] we've got one target in mind, and that is closing the gap to the front of the field."

When the pandemic hit last year, McLaren was one of the teams pushing hardest for a lower cost cap, which was no great surprise given the financial pressure it was under.

The change and downwards glide path for 2022 and '23 tipped McLaren over the limit, and the team has had to make changes to suit – although far less than Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

"The FIA and the teams and F1 have been working continuously on defining it and regulating it," says Brown.

McLaren MCL35M

McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: McLaren

"I'm sure there'll be learnings from year one, and it won't be perfect, I think they'll get it right.

"And I think it will achieve what we're hoping to achieve, which is a more level playing field. We were spending beyond the cap previously. So we've had to make some adjustments to come down to the cap. So have a handful of others.

"I think there'll be learnings this year, but I think the discrepancies will be pretty nominal. We'll learn, we'll move on. What's most important is that Andreas and James and the team have the full resources to run at the cap.

"So clearly, spending at the cap, focussed on total performance, is the goal. And I'm confident that cap will achieve for the sport what we hoped it will achieve."

The cap will close the financial gap, but McLaren still has to catch up in other areas. Seidl stresses that the team is still in the rebuilding phase after losing its way in the early years of the hybrid era.

"There's a lot of positive energy within the team regarding going into this season," he says.

"Of course, in terms of driver line-up, we will have, again, one of the strongest in the paddock, and we will have the championship winning power unit at the back of our car.

"But you shouldn't forget, as Zak said before, the battle we were in last year. We have a lot of respect for these competitors we were fighting with last year.

"We are fighting here against 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.

"So 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, how we want to get back to the front in F1."

Commuting to Toyota's wind tunnel in Cologne while the new in-house facility is built is one of the main compromises that McLaren currently faces.

"We need more time to put our infrastructure in place to be on a level playing field here with the teams in front and also with some around us," says Seidl.

"The biggest topic is obviously the wind tunnel, this will still take around two years until we can actually see the first benefits 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, in the current situation, as a team. That's what we are working on.

"We want to get closer again to Mercedes and Red Bull. These steps are key in order to get back to the front again at some point in the future."

This has been a hugely challenging winter for all the F1 teams. The freeze on mechanical elements took a little pressure off, but in McLaren's case the switch of engine suppliers created a lot of extra work, and all changes had to be made within the confines of what was allowed by the FIA's token system.

The usual year-on-year aero development has been impacted by the significant downforce cuts imposed by the FIA, while as of January 1 teams could take their first steps with 2022 aero work – and have thus had to decide how to split their limited resources.

The new aero testing restrictions provide an extra challenge. Having finished third in 2020, McLaren gains a little wind tunnel time and CFD usage relative to Mercedes and Red Bull, but it loses out to Aston, Alpine and especially to Ferrari, at least until the re-set based on current championship positions as of June 30.

With 2021 and 2022 programmes operating in parallel, every tunnel run is valuable, and the ATR rules will be even more significant next year, when the gap between team positions is doubled.

In other words, a good championship result in 2021 will lead to a loss of development potential in 2022.

"I think we will accept that if you if you finish high up, then you're going to get a little bit penalised for wind tunnel time in the future, it's part of the game now," says Key.

"I suppose it could have a minor effect on how we split '21 and '22. But it's not going to govern how we go about that. I think we'll do the similar sort of programme and timing and the number of weeks on each car as we originally planned.

"It will just probably slightly change what we would have done had we been seventh or eighth, and had noticeably more runs, where we could perhaps make that split slightly differently.

"It's going to be a challenging year with the cost cup being in place, in all respects, to try and run these two cars together. But of course, that's the same for every team."

Like other teams with big aspirations, McLaren sees 2022 as the chance to change the established order, and being well prepared for the new rules has to remain the focus.

Juggling that longer term ambition while not sacrificing hard results in 2021 is the challenge.

"From our side, we simply want to be competitive also this year," says Seidl. So that's pretty much a decision that we have to take live, after the first races, how long we're going to still keep developing this year's car.

"I think for our journey, it is important to have a good season this year, to keep this positive momentum up. But at the same time, it's important to not lose sight of the on the big picture.

"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 some years again to fight for race wins.

"And in order to do that it is important to use the new regulations in '22, which are a big change, as an opportunity as well. And that's where we are right now."

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