The awkward tightrope act McLaren has to perform in 2021

McLaren comes into the 2021 Formula 1 season with arguably the most differences to its updated MCL35M chassis. But amid its attempts to consolidate its hard-earned third place in the constructors standings, there's an element of jeopardy too, says ADAM COOPER

The awkward tightrope act McLaren has to perform in 2021

What can a resurgent McLaren achieve on its return to Mercedes power in 2021? That's one of the many intriguing questions to be answered as we head into the first season of the budget cap, against a background of new aero testing restrictions, and with the massive challenge of the 2022 rules looming on the horizon. McLaren has the potential to feed off all those challenges and emerge in an even stronger position, but to do so it will have to continue get everything right.

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, with Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr providing extra motivation from the cockpit.

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.

It was a close battle behind the top two teams last year, one settled only at the final race. In the end the 15-point brake duct copying penalty for Racing Point made the difference, while Renault wasn't too far behind. By pipping its two main rivals, McLaren achieved the maximum that could be expected.

PLUS: How McLaren triumphed in F1 2020's best battle

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 champions. 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 Norris/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. Seidl said there was "a lot to be optimistic about" in 2021, but followed it immediately afterwards with a call to be realistic. That was echoed by CEO Zak Brown, who agreed that the focus is not so much on championship positions as closing the performance gap to Mercedes and Red Bull.

"I think challenging for the championship, it would be unrealistic, given the journey that we're on," he said.

Brown anticipates that 2021 won't look too different to 2020, other than "it being even closer this year".

"So all we can really do is key off who is the fastest team and hope that we close the gap," he continued.

"Short of that, it's too competitive to give any sort of prediction.

"We're not focused 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. That was no great surprise given the financial pressure it was under. Brown said the team has "had to make some adjustments to come down to the cap", but said any discrepancies "will be pretty nominal".

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. Commuting to Toyota's windtunnel in Cologne while the new in-house facility is built - which Seidl explained "will still take around two years until we can actually see the first benefits" - 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," he said.

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 PU 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 1 January 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 windtunnel time and CFD usage relative to Mercedes and Red Bull, but it loses out to Aston Martin, Alpine and especially to Ferrari, at least until the reset based on current championship positions as of 30 June.

PLUS: The influences of Mercedes on McLaren's 2021 challenger

Every tunnel run is valuable with 2021 and 2022 programmes operating in parallel, 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. Key is aware that there's an inherent compromise involved.

"It's one of those impossible conundrums, do you dumb down a year to be better next year? What makes one year better than the next?" he said.

"We were aware of that when we were fighting for that championship position last year and you just compensate for it. We will accept that if you if you finish high up, then you're going to get a little bit penalised for windtunnel time in the future, it's part of the game now.

"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."

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.

PLUS: Why McLaren can be a true force in F1 again

"I think for our journey, it is important to have a good season this year, to keep this positive momentum up," said Seidl.

"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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