McLaren has shown impressive improvement since its dire 2018 campaign. Third place in last year's Formula 1 constructors' table was the Woking-based team's best finish since 2012.
Mercedes engines and the arrival of proven race winner Daniel Ricciardo should help maintain that momentum this season, even if the final step to the front will probably have to wait until the new regulations arrive in 2022.
Despite the fact McLaren's last title was Lewis Hamilton's first drivers' crown in 2008, it remains the second most successful team in F1 history in terms of wins, 182 to Ferrari's 238. It's also second in the poles, fastest laps and drivers' titles (12) lists, while its eight constructors' successes put it third behind Ferrari and Williams.
Assuming the 2021 F1 calendar gets close to its planned schedule, McLaren will start its 900th world championship race this year. We assessed Ferrari's seven decades in F1 as it celebrated its 1000th world championship start at the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix so have done the same for McLaren's 55 years at the pinnacle of motorsport.
- More F1 Supertimes overviews from Autosport Plus
- The spectacular peaks and troughs of Ferrari's cyclical history
- The rollercoaster ride of F1's fastest and slowest team
For this analysis, we've dug into supertimes, which are based on the fastest single lap by each car at each race weekend, expressed as a percentage of the fastest single lap overall (100.000%) and averaged over the season.
As we have pointed out before, because they are based on the best lap time of a weekend (usually qualifying), supertimes don't give a complete picture of a car's competitiveness, in terms of reliability or race pace. But it does give a good indication of how the raw speed of the cars stack up season-by-season.
We have calculated how far off McLaren has been from the fastest team in F1 each season or, in years when the team has been quickest, how far ahead it was.
Former Cooper driver Bruce McLaren's first F1 effort as a constructor in 1966 was low-key. The founder only started four world championship races in the M2B, trying both Ford and Serenissima power. It's probably therefore a bit harsh to judge it as the slowest McLaren in F1 history - it was a whopping 5.81% away from pacesetter Ferrari as teams grappled with the new three-litre regulations - particularly as it did manage to finish in the points twice at Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen.
Robin Herd's next F1 McLarens, the BRM-engined M4B (a converted F2 car) and more-suitable M5A, didn't contest the full season in 1967 either. McLaren improved to 2.249% off the pace, which would have put it between AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo in the 2020 campaign, but arguably the first 'proper' effort came in 1968.
By now McLaren was the dominant force in the free-for-all Can-Am sportscar series and the Herd/Gordon Coppuck-penned M7 series made the orange cars major players in F1. McLaren was 1.525% from pacesetter Ferrari, which was only fifth fastest, but such was the inconsistency elsewhere that McLaren finished second in the constructors' table.
In just three seasons the British team filled with New Zealand talent had become a strong unit, arguably making more of what it had than more established teams
Bruce himself and reigning world champion Denny Hulme shared the wins in the two non-championship races ahead of the main European season before Bruce McLaren fortuitously scored his team's first world championship GP success in a dramatic Belgian GP.
Hulme then won the Italian and Canadian GPs, and went to the Mexico finale with an outside chance of the drivers' title against Graham Hill (Lotus) and Jackie Stewart (Matra). In just three seasons the British team filled with New Zealand talent had become a strong unit, arguably making more of what it had than more established teams.
It improved to fourth, dipping within 1% of the fastest in 1969, though fell to fourth in the constructors' championship as others upped their game.
Coppuck's M14A was conventional and dropped to 1.458% behind as others, most notably Ferrari, Lotus and later Tyrrell, made steps forward in 1970, the year the team lost its founder in a Goodwood testing crash. McLaren managed to salvage fifth in the constructors' table. It was both sixth fastest and sixth in the points the following year, but development of the Ralph Bellamy M19 paid dividends.
Now Yardley-backed, McLaren was third quickest in 1972 - just 0.213% behind Ferrari and fractionally ahead of the Lotus 72 that took both titles - and reliable enough to take third in the constructors' contest and drivers' table with Hulme. McLaren was in the ballpark but just two wins in four seasons showed it needed a breakthrough - and was about to get it.
Coppuck had already demonstrated he had learned the lessons from Colin Chapman's Lotus 72, including chisel nose and side-mounted radiators, with his successful M16 Indycar. His F1 version, the M23, arrived in 1973 and Hulme promptly took the only pole of his world championship F1 career on the car's debut in round three in South Africa.
The 1973 supertimes place McLaren third, 0.7% behind the well-developed Lotus, but this hides the truth. If only the races in which the M23 was involved are counted, McLaren moves into second, ahead of Tyrrell, and is 0.602% behind Lotus.
The M23 would still be competitive three years later and it is worth pointing out that, though good drivers, Hulme and team-mate Peter Revson were not as rapid as Lotus pairing Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson, or Tyrrell's Stewart. Rookie Jody Scheckter led most of the French GP on his M23 debut, helped by its straightline speed, until being hit by Fittipaldi, while Jacky Ickx finished third in the German GP in his only outing in the car.
It seems fair to suggest that the M23 would have won more than three races with a top-liner and could have been in the title fight, a point backed up by what happened when Fittipaldi defected from Lotus to McLaren for 1974, bringing Marlboro and Texaco backing with him.
The M23 was still second quickest, 0.716% off the top, but became the first McLaren to win an F1 title. And it won both, Fittipaldi beating Ferrari's Clay Regazzoni and Scheckter (now at Tyrrell) in the Watkins Glen decider, while McLaren took the constructors' title by eight points.
Ferrari was just starting its Luca di Montezemolo/Mauro Forghieri/Niki Lauda-led revival and the 312B3 was the fastest car of 1974. But it wasn't yet quite reliable enough and misfortune had knocked clear pacesetter Lauda out of title contention.
But in 1975, Ferrari and Lauda set the pace and had reliability. McLaren was almost exactly the same distance away - 0.717% to 0.716% in 1974 - but fell from second to fourth fastest, jumped by Brabham and Tyrrell. Fittipaldi finished second in the drivers' table, while McLaren took three wins and finished third in the constructors' table, one point behind Brabham.
McLaren closed the gap to 0.114% in 1976, its most competitive season yet. But it is debatable that reflects real improvement. James Hunt, who replaced Fittipaldi, was almost certainly quicker over a single lap than his predecessor, while Ferrari's advantage would surely have been greater had Lauda not suffered his terrible German GP crash.
Despite missing the Austrian GP entirely, Ferrari still did enough to win the constructors' battle, even though Hunt dramatically and famously beat Lauda to the drivers' crown by a single point in the Japanese GP finale.
Problems for Lotus, McLaren and Brabham allowed the reliable and consistent Ferrari-Lauda combination to take both titles in 1977 despite being only fourth fastest
Hunt was arguably even better in 1977, during which Coppuck finally replaced the M23 with the M26. McLaren jumped past Ferrari and was only 0.206% behind Lotus, which was getting to grips with ground-effects. Given the reliability problems suffered by Lotus with its development Cosworth DFV engines, McLaren could perhaps have capitalised had it been able to finish more races.
As it was, problems for Lotus, McLaren and Brabham allowed the reliable and consistent Ferrari-Lauda combination to take both titles despite being only fourth fastest. Hunt scored as many wins as Lauda - three - but those successes accounted for 27 of his 40 points and he finished fifth in the table.
McLaren now started a slide that would not be arrested until the arrival of Ron Dennis and his Project Four operation. The M26 fell to fourth, 1.376% off as Lotus perfected ground-effects, in 1978. McLaren went winless for the first time since 1971 and finished only eighth in the constructors' table. But the following year McLaren completely fell off the cliff.
Hunt left for Wolf and Ronnie Peterson never arrived due to his death following the 1978 Italian GP startline accident. The new (and rather large) M28 had many shortcomings, despite various revisions, and was replaced by the M29 during the season. It was not enough. McLaren was 2.035% off the pace across 1979 and finished seventh in the championship, while a deficit of 1.9% left it 11th in 1980.
That paved the way for team boss Teddy Mayer to be 'encouraged' by Marlboro to merge with the Project Four F2 team. Designer John Barnard replaced Coppuck as part of the shake-up and it soon became clear this was now Dennis's team.
The first car of the new era was Barnard's revolutionary MP4/1, which brought the full carbonfibre monocoque to F1. Even including the early rounds running the M29F, McLaren was sixth quickest across 1981, 1.393% away from the pacesetting (and still unreliable) turbocharged Renaults. John Watson's popular British GP success was McLaren's first win for four years. Both he and the team finished sixth in their respective championship tables.
On the face of it, things went downhill again over the next two seasons. McLaren was fifth and ninth, 2.167% and 3.559% off the pace, in 1982 and 1983 respectively. But this was at a time when the turbocharged teams, chiefly Renault, Ferrari and Brabham-BMW created artificially big gaps.
The turbocars could run more boost in qualifying than the races, so often started at the front. The normally aspirated Cosworth DFV runners, which included McLaren, were invariably closer in race trim - and were more reliable. McLaren's supertimes pace was also hindered by the use of Michelin rubber designed for turbocars, which it struggled to get up to temperature in qualifying.
Watson finished just five points shy of champion Keke Rosberg in the incredible 1982 season, while McLaren scored five wins courtesy of Watson and the unretired Lauda in that two-year period.
It did, however, become increasingly obvious that turbo power was required to remain competitive. Dennis secured TAG-badged engines from Porsche, no stranger to fuel-restricted turbo competition thanks to its efforts in Group C, and Lauda ensured the powerplant made its debut at the end of 1983 to iron out any bugs. When Alain Prost lost his Renault drive and arrived alongside Lauda, Dennis had a superteam on his hands, equipped with Barnard's 'Coke bottle' MP4/2.
Thanks to the qualifying pace of the Brabham BT53, McLaren's supertimes advantage in 1984 was only 0.072% - the first season it topped the chart - but in reality its supremacy was much greater. Although Nelson Piquet scored nine poles for Brabham, the McLaren was a more efficient and reliable racing machine for the fuel-restricted formula. Lauda famously beat Prost by half a point in the drivers' contest, while McLaren waltzed to its first constructors' crown for a decade with 12 wins from 16 races.
The team fell to third quickest - behind the Ayrton Senna/Lotus/Renault combination and the increasingly threatening Williams-Honda - in 1985 but Prost and the MP4/2B was still often the best package on Sundays. Five wins was sufficient for the Frenchman to take his first world title, while Lauda - struck by the bad luck that had afflicted Prost the year before - did enough to help McLaren narrowly beat Ferrari in the constructors' table.
The raw pace gap to the front remained in 1986 - McLaren still third, this time 0.849% behind rather than 0.884% - but now Williams-Honda had the best race day mix of speed and efficiency. Williams waltzed to nine wins and the constructors' title. McLaren still famously won the drivers' title, through a combination of a brilliant campaign from Prost, the intra-team fight between Williams team-mates Nigel Mansell and Piquet, and a dramatic Adelaide finale.
The gap was simply too great in 1987, the final year with Porsche power, and Williams took both titles. McLaren slipped to fourth, 1.466% off the front, though still finished second in the constructors' title.
McLaren's 1988 supertimes advantage of 1.511% - the fifth largest in world championship history - resulted in a points tally that was only two away from matching the combined totals of all the other teams
The response was dramatic, aided by major weaknesses from its rivals. For the final year of the first F1 turbo era, McLaren joined forced with Honda and Senna. Combining that with then double world champion Prost was always going to create a combination tough to beat and the MP4/4 is rightly regarded as one of the great McLarens, but things were made easy for the team.
Ferrari struggled to match Honda's fuel efficiency and the Lotus 100T chassis was no match for the McLaren despite running the same engines. Mansell, the one driver in the same ballpark as Senna and Prost, was hampered by normally aspirated Judd V8s and unreliability at Williams.
McLaren's supertimes advantage of 1.511% - the fifth largest in world championship history - resulted in 15 wins from 16 races, both titles and a points tally that was only two away from matching the combined totals of all the other teams.
McLaren's advantage was almost as big in 1989 - 1.445% - and would have resulted in more than 10 victories but for some bad luck and unreliability. During the year McLaren surpassed Lotus's tally of world championship GP wins to move into second on the all-time list.
Ferrari improved and the Williams-Renault partnership that would soon become a major threat began, though perhaps more damaging in the short-term was the increasingly toxic relationship between Senna and Prost. The result was that Prost left to lead a Ferrari team that was getting on top of its innovative semi-automatic gearbox.
The excellent 641 chassis helped Ferrari close to 0.654% off McLaren on supertimes in 1990. Surprisingly, that's slightly more than the gap in 2020 between Mercedes and Red Bull, but both championships were close. McLaren held on to both titles, Honda power and better reliability - not to mention the controversial Suzuka clash between Senna and Prost - getting it over the line.
Ferrari fell away in 1991 as it descended into shambles but Williams stepped up. The FW14 was only 0.27% away from the MP4/6 on supertimes and that flatters the McLaren - the Williams was arguably quicker in 10 of the 16 races. Williams unreliability and team blunders, and a superb campaign from Senna, allowed McLaren to extend its streak to four title doubles. Just as in 1986, McLaren's efficient organisation had helped it to score success over a faster rival.
Williams, though, had the momentum. With more gizmos, such as active suspension and traction control, added to create the reliable FW14B, Williams and Mansell crushed the opposition. McLaren was still second in both the constructors' and supertimes standings but in three years its 1.445% advantage had turned into a 1.492% deficit and it would take much of the decade to recover.
Honda pulled out of F1 at the end of 1992 and Senna spent considerable effort trying to land a Williams seat. McLaren pressed on trying to catch Williams in the technology stakes and, though the 1993 MP4/8 was not a terrible car, it was not a match for the FW15C. Having customer Ford V8s for the first half of the season didn't help either.
McLaren improved towards the end of 1993 and ended the season 1.706% off the Williams - still good enough for second fastest - and finished runner-up in the constructors' championship despite the struggles of Michael Andretti, replaced by Mika Hakkinen before the end of the campaign.
When Senna scored his final victory in the Australian GP, McLaren moved past Ferrari on the all-time wins list, despite having entered F1 16 years after its Italian rival. But it would soon drop behind again as the Dennis era entered its first truly lean period.
The banning of many of the driver aids for 1994 certainly hindered Williams and closed up the field, but McLaren wasn't the main beneficiary. Senna had finally left and the team still hadn't solved its powerplant problem - the Peugeot V10 in the MP4/9 was neither particularly powerful nor reliable.
At the same time the agile Benetton team with rising star Michael Schumacher came to the fore and would take the lead in (successfully) challenging Williams. So while, on paper, McLaren closed to within 1.295% of Williams in 1994, it actually fell to fourth, the same place it finished in the constructors' table. It was also the first season since 1980 in which McLaren failed to win a race.
The performance gap increased to 1.643% in 1995 with the ugly MP4/10, but crucially the season marked the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Mercedes. David Coulthard joined Hakkinen for 1996, McLaren edged to within 1.302% of the frontrunning pace, and then aero genius Adrian Newey left the pacesetting Williams team to join McLaren.
The ingredients were now in place, perhaps helped by rule changes that specified narrower cars and grooved tyres. The MP4/13 was head and shoulders above the rest in 1998. It lapped the field in the season-opening Australian GP and, despite Ferrari closing the gap and McLaren having its innovative braking system banned, ended the season with nine wins, both titles and an average advantage of 0.724%.
In terms of the supertimes gap between the two fastest teams, the 2000 season was the closest in world championship history with Ferrari's F1-2000 just 0.008% quicker than the McLaren MP4-15
The improved MP4-14's advantage was 0.559% in 1999. Given main rival Michael Schumacher's leg-breaking crash at Silverstone, which forced the German to miss six races, that should have been easily enough for McLaren and Hakkinen to comfortably retain their respective titles. But unreliability, some bad luck and blunders allowed Eddie Irvine to get unsettlingly close in the drivers' fight, while Ferrari - boosted by Schumacher's return for the final two GPs - actually snatched the constructors' laurels by four points.
In terms of the supertimes gap between the two fastest teams, the 2000 season was the closest in world championship history. Ferrari's F1-2000 was 0.008% quicker than the McLaren MP4-15 as Schumacher and Hakkinen fought out an epic campaign.
Schumacher pulled out what he regarded as the race of his life at the Japanese GP to secure the first title for a Ferrari driver since 1979, while Ferrari pipped McLaren by 18 points. Nobody else got a look in - Ferrari won 10 of the 17 races, with McLaren winning the rest.
The overall trend of those three seasons was the increasing strength of the Jean Todt/Ross Brawn/Schumacher-led Ferrari team. That continued in 2001, with McLaren falling to third behind Williams as BMW power gave the Grove-based team a boost. McLaren still scored four wins and finished second in the points table, as did Coulthard, but Ferrari had now stretched ahead.
The 2002 season was worse, 1.062% away from Ferrari and beaten to second in the constructors' title as McLaren joined Williams running Michelin rubber. Now team leader following Hakkinen's 'sabbatical', Coulthard scored a brilliant victory at Monaco, but that was it.
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Despite the failure of the overly ambitious and unraced MP4-18, McLaren got surprisingly close to winning a title in 2003. One-lap qualifying and a new points system, along with a less convincing contender from Ferrari, made it a three-way fight between McLaren, Williams and the reds.
Changes to the tyre rules and impressive wins for Schumacher at Monza and Indianapolis swung the drivers' contest in the German's favour. But a fraught finale meant he staggered over the line, the impressive Kimi Raikkonen falling just two points short.
The F2004 was the ultimate Schumacher era Ferrari and was only defeated three times in 18 races. The MP4-19 - which Newey has argued was really the MP4-18 - had a troubled start to the year, but aerodynamic revisions and better reliability helped McLaren climb up the grid in the second half of the season, Raikkonen brilliantly winning the Belgian GP ahead of Schumacher.
Across the season McLaren was fifth fastest, 0.713% behind Ferrari, and was only fifth in the constructors' championship. But it ended the season in a competitive fashion and the MP4-20 was the fastest car of 2005, as Ferrari/Bridgestone were caught out by the new no-tyre-stops rule. However, it famously didn't win either title. Fernando Alonso's brilliance and McLaren unreliability, particularly for the rapid Raikkonen, meant Renault scooped both championships.
The 2006 MP4-21, the first Mercedes-engined McLaren not to have Ilmor involvement, fell to third, 0.618% off Ferrari. It was normally in the points but the underpowered machine failed to win a race, the first winless McLaren since 1996, and finished third in the table.
That turned out to be a blip as its next two cars were right on the pace, despite the loss of Newey to Red Bull. The 2007 McLaren MP4-22 had a 0.205% advantage over Ferrari and is arguably the greatest McLaren not to win a title. The drivers' crown was lost partly thanks to the fierce rivalry between new star signing Alonso, the reigning world champion, and rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton.
The car did score more points than any other during the season, but McLaren's constructors' tally was lost as part of the fallout from the 'Spygate' scandal. The $100million fine would also have longer-term repercussions on the team's ability to invest in new facilities.
In 2008 McLaren was 0.059% behind Ferrari and failed to take the constructors' title but was close enough for Hamilton to pip Felipa Massa for the drivers' accolade. To date, that is the last title McLaren has won, though it would remain competitive for four more seasons.
McLaren missed the double diffuser trick of the new 2009 regulations and started the season poorly. But it recovered well and, though the MP4-24 was only sixth fastest in F1's closest season on raw pace, McLaren took third in the points table.
McLaren went radical for 2013 to defeat Red Bull, but the MP4-28 was a miss, 1.097% off the pace and fifth quickest. It took the same position in the championship and began a slide that took years to correct
For the next three seasons McLaren, with Hamilton and Jenson Button, were consistent front-runners as it battled to topple Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel. The MP4-25 brought in the F-duct and won five races, narrowly missing out on both titles to the RB6 that was 0.512% faster.
The gap was 0.489% the following year but Red Bull was more dominant in the races, while McLaren's last big opportunity slipped through its fingers in 2012. The MP4-27 topped the supertimes by 0.154% and took eight poles but suffered too many problems - a contributing factor for Hamilton deciding to head to Mercedes.
McLaren went radical for 2013 to defeat Red Bull, but the MP4-28 was a miss, 1.097% off the pace and fifth quickest. It took the same position in the championship and began a slide that took years to correct.
The MP4-29 benefited from having the pacesetting Mercedes engine in the new turbo-hybrid era but was still only fifth quickest, 1.413% behind. Dennis stated that a works manufacturer engine programme was required in the new era and recreated the McLaren-Honda partnership for 2015.
The thinking made sense but the project was an infamous failure, Honda struggling to make up for its late start and McLaren not being helpful with its 'size zero' concept. The gap to the front soared to 2.954% in 2015, the team's third slowest season in its history, and it never got within 2% of the front in the three-year relationship with Honda.
Claims that a good chassis was being held back by a poor engine were blown out of the water when the Renault-powered MCL33 was even further off the pace in 2018 than the McLaren-Honda MCL32 the year before (2.805% to 2.426%), though McLaren did improve in the constructors' championship.
The performance brought wide-sweeping changes. Dennis had already gone and the rebuilding led to Andreas Seidl arriving as team principal in 2019.
The gap to Mercedes halved to 1.454% in 2019 and McLaren was fourth fastest, while the deficit was 1.372% last year. That only put McLaren fifth fastest, but the savvy race operation and nicely balanced driver line-up of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris helped McLaren to third in the constructors' championship.
With Mercedes power arriving this year, investment in facilities and the new F1 rules of 2022 hopefully offering a more level playing field, McLaren now looks in better shape than it has for almost a decade.