McLaren’s long-term goal in Formula 1 is simple: a return to the title successes of past decades. Although this should probably only be changed to make it look good on paper, because the real task of overtaking the best F1 teams and winning the championship is not easy.
Last year’s team took a good step in the right direction, finishing third in the constructors’ standings, but this result came with some reservations.
First and foremost, McLaren were 371 points behind Mercedes’ world champions in the final standings. For comparison: The team that finished second behind McLaren, Red Bull, scored a total of 319 points.
Then there was the curious case of Ferrari, a team that has finished in the top three in nine of the last ten seasons, but which was triggered in the winter by an investigation into the legality of its power source. A slap in the face and a lesson learned can guarantee that Ferrari’s financial firepower will get it back on track in the coming seasons.
Racing Point, fourth in the final standings, could have beaten McLaren, were it not for the fact that it had to lose 15 points after changing the design of its rear brake lines earlier in the season.
As impressive as McLaren’s third place finish overall in 2020 is, it’s still a precarious position to speak of in the championship.
But McLaren never hides from the long road to recovery. The key to their return to the front line is a much needed upgrade to their factory infrastructure, particularly the wind tunnel, which will not be completed and will not bear fruit for another two years. New investments made at the end of last year have consolidated the base, but they are not there yet.
However, two very clear statements about the team’s intentions will come true this year and have already generated a lot of enthusiasm ahead of the new season.
The return of Mercedes engines, albeit under a deal with a customer, has brought back memories of the mighty McLaren-Mercedes team of the late 1990s and 2000s. Add to that the arrival of Daniel Ricciardo and the hype around McLaren this year is as great as any other top F1 team.
Originally, the decision to switch to Mercedes engines was meant to coincide with all the new technical regulations for Formula 1 in 2021. However, due to the pandemic of the coronavirus, the revision of the rule was delayed until 2022, forcing McLaren to mount a new engine on the existing chassis.
The good news is that Mercedes’ powertrain is the best engine in the industry. Mercedes has won every championship since the current turbo-hybrid rules were introduced in 2014. After increasingly rigorous testing of Ferrari’s suspect engines in 2018 and 2019, the engine was significantly improved last year, with the promise of further performance improvements in 2021.
But that doesn’t mean it guarantees podiums (or even points) in F1. Williams used a Mercedes engine in the 2020 season and failed to finish in the top ten in 17 races. Racing Point got back on the grid, but that was due more to the chassis and aerodynamic design, which mimicked the work of the Mercedes team, than to the engine itself.
But what the three-pointed star under the bonnet offers McLaren is the assurance that a team capable of building a winning car will not be disappointed by its powertrain.
Changing engine suppliers is no easy task though, especially in 2021 when rules require teams to redesign their chassis designs for 2020 and winter development is restricted under the marking system.
Each unit must be installed separately and the packaging – particularly the location of the turbocharger, which is at the front of the engine on the Mercedes and at the rear on the Renault – varies greatly from one unit to the next.
Although the 2014 results suggest otherwise, there is no right or wrong answer to the powertrain architecture, but it is essential to adapt the chassis design to it.
I think the power output is about the same across all manufacturers and the track test will show where we are relative to the others, said technical director James Key, who compared Mercedes to Renault. We know Mercedes has always been very strong in this area, but now it is much tighter than before.
I think on the installation side, there are advantages and disadvantages to the different architectures we have. In general, a front compressor instead of a turbocharger is the main change in terms of layout. I think the Mercedes configuration is really neat, you can see how it has been worked on in detail, in that respect it has given us some positives.
Similarly, there are other requirements in different areas that we have had to adapt, so there is probably no one right answer to this question. I think there are pros and cons to the different architectures, but I think it has become clear that the Mercedes configuration is very good to work with.
The chassis development freeze means McLaren has had to use its development tokens – essentially jokers that allow teams to develop parts of the car despite the freeze – to adapt last year’s MCL35 to the new engine, while other teams can use them to focus on their weaknesses and improve their designs from 2020.
Many of the parts involved in the installation of the engine were frozen at the beginning of last season, which of course presented us with a dilemma, but provisions had been made for that, Kay explained. This means that we were dealing with a totally different situation.
Each configuration is really different, there is no single solution for the layout of the powertrains, all the dimensions of the different components can affect the architecture of the car. So we had to try to respect the homologation process by not changing things that didn’t need to be changed, depending on the installation of the engine, but of course by making the necessary changes to the homologated parts.
That allowed us to change the chassis, which of course has to be adapted with the new engine and energy storage, aspects of the gearbox for the packaging, but after that everything is the same as last year. The electrical system is completely different and of course the cooling system.
Basically, the architecture of the car is completely different, but the homologated parts of the car that we had to adhere to are not affected as much as they might be. In addition to all the other problems that have arisen, this has added an extra dimension, which of course has produced a somewhat suboptimal approach to what you do when you are completely free, but I don’t think this is a compromise.
What about the rest of the vehicle?
Assuming McLaren doesn’t have any major engine compatibility issues once the Mercedes MCL35M is on the track, the greater performance difference over Aston Martin, Alpine and Ferrari will likely come down to the car’s aerodynamics.
This year’s new regulations have made changes to the aerodynamic surfaces at the rear of the car to reduce lean and make the cars slower. The change was made following a series of incidents involving Pirelli tyres last year that raised fears that teams could develop their 2020 cars for another year without any oversight.
The biggest reduction comes from lowering the floor for the rear tires, and the combination of all these changes should mean that the cars will start the 2021 season much slower than they finished the 2020 season.
Despite the limitations of chassis development, aerodynamics remained a relatively free area of development for the start of this season.
The only area of the McLaren car where people were concerned that progress was not being made was the front end of the car. Therefore, at the end of last year, a Mercedes-type nose was hastily fitted to anticipate the 2020-2021 deadline imposed by the homologation rules.
Last year, all crews focused heavily on their 2021 cars as the 2022 work was halted to save money. The ban on working on 2022 cars was lifted earlier this year, meaning teams hope their 2021 models will need minimal changes to focus on the next generation of cars and continue to get results this year.
It’s a balance that all teams on the grid need to find, and a balance that McLaren needs to find if it wants to achieve its long-term plan of competing for wins and championships in the next control cycle. Yeah, I don’t think it’s a secret and it’s the same for all teams that we will have a lot of players from day one. In January we will be working with James and his colleagues on next year’s car, says team manager Andreas Seidl. I think it’s important now – and everyone is going to try – to start the season well, because that will obviously help to make the decision to switch to next year’s car as quickly as possible.
We just want to be competitive again this year, so the decision has to be taken after the first races. How can we make the car evolve this year?
I think it’s also important for our journey to have a good season this year to keep the positive momentum going. But it’s also important to keep the big picture in mind, because in the coming years we just want to close the gap with the teams ahead of us, we want to get into the position we were in a few years ago to fight for race victories, so I think it’s important to use the new rules of 2022 – which are a big change – as an opportunity as well.
Arrival of Ricciardo
Newcomer Ricciardo believes McLaren will find the right balance. The 31-year-old is starting his third season with the team as Lando Norris’ partner, joining Renault after two unsuccessful years.
He signed a three-year contract with McLaren, knowing full well that he had been passed over several times in recent years by Mercedes and Ferrari and that a return to Red Bull would be a step backwards for the most progressive driver in Formula 1.
Ricciardo therefore has little choice but to trust McLaren and do what he can to help the team achieve its goals.
I don’t have a crystal ball, so leaving Red Bull or Reno was clearly how I felt at the time, Ricciardo said.
Do I know 100% how this is going to happen? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. But I think McLaren has done well, especially in recent years, to prepare for the rule changes that will take place in 2022.
I think the next era of F1 has the ability to change things a bit. Everything I’ve seen and experienced so far has me worried about where McLaren is headed.
So it’s actually more than something. I really believe in the staff. I think Andreas really helps to steer the ship in the right direction. James, too. I started working with James at Toro Rosso in 2013 and that was short-lived, then I went to Red Bull in the summer. I’m looking forward to working with him again.
They have also received more support since the end of last year, slightly more investment. They are developing, I think they are doing what it takes to become a real contender for the championship. Let’s go!
With all the excitement and changes at McLaren this year, the goal should be to win races and fight for the championship a few seasons down the road.
Getting the most out of the Mercedes and Ricciardo’s engine will be essential if the team is to retain its third place in the championship from last year, but it will be even more important to introduce these two elements into the team’s long-term goals.
We will definitely have one of the strongest drivers in the paddock, and in the back of the car we have a powertrain for the championship, Seidl said. But we must not forget last year’s battle.
We have a lot of respect for last year’s rivals. We were dealing with whole work teams with a much more sophisticated infrastructure than we have now.
So we can look forward to the season with optimism, but at the same time we have to be realistic about what is possible. We need more time to execute our plan and get back to the front.
We need more time to get our infrastructure in place so we can compete with the teams in front of us and some around us.
The biggest problem is of course the wind tunnel, it will take about two years before we see the first results of this new wind tunnel, which is crucial for the development of racing cars. Until then, we have only borders.
At the same time, I think we can still make progress, even in the current climate in which we are working.
Our main goal is just to take the next steps as a team. With the car and the way we work together, we want to get closer to Mercedes and Red Bull again, because these steps are the key to ever getting back to the top.
frequently asked questions
Why did Ricciardo switch to McLaren?
Does McLaren use Renault engines?
Why does McLaren use Renault engines?
He uses the Renault engine instead! … McLaren would need as much money as Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault to build an F1 powertrain. Even with all the money Red Bull Energy Drinks has, it will be too expensive for them.