After an impressive year of rejuvenation, McLaren have a significant task on their hands.
They must not only maintain their glittering 2019 form, but take the fight to Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
After three disappointing seasons with Honda engines, the Woking outfit took a giant step forward in their second campaign powered by Renault in 2019. They finished fourth in the constructors’ standings, some way behind the big three but comfortably ahead of Renault and Toro Rosso.
It showed positive strides, nevertheless, as McLaren climbed from ninth and sixth in the previous two seasons, maintaining their upward trajectory this term.
With a ‘bromantic’ driver pairing of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris back for their second season together, it is hoped an increased determination on track will not deter their friendship off track.
Both drivers surfed a wave of positivity in 2019, with Sainz rising from P20 to third in Brazil for McLaren’s first podium since March 2014. Norris, meanwhile, shone with a series of stunning drives during his rookie campaign.
Both drivers feel a lot more confident compared to last year’s car, designed under the leadership of technical director James Key.
The MCL35 is an evolution, with a noticeably narrow nose and pinched rear end in pursuit of maximum aerodynamic downforce. Behind the dominance of the big three, the car is more stable, quick and attacks the corners to perfection in comparison to previous seasons.
Norris declared it less on edge but still in need of development, something that will come together as the season progresses. While Sainz admitted he was shocked with how quick the car was during testing.
With no change in the regulations for 2020, the battle for midfield supremacy is expected to be even closer, with the new-look AlphaTauri team and Racing Point particularly strong.
McLaren showed good overall pace around the Circuit de Catalunya. While only eighth in the standings, Sainz’s best effort was 0.624s off the leading time set by Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas (1.15.732).
Based on their performance runs on the C3 against rivals Racing Point, Sainz was just 0.164s off Sergio Perez. A margin like that could be easily flipped in a qualifying session if it turns out McLaren were running extra fuel in testing.
Of course, drivers will admit lap times are notoriously misleading in testing as some teams opt for mileage and consistency in a bid to collect valuable data. From here, the team based back at the factory will use the data to add the final touches to the cars ahead of the season opener in Melbourne on March 15.
Over the first week in Barcelona, McLaren opted to track mileage and consistency, and then worked on different strategies in the final three days, clocking up 802 laps, behind Mercedes (903) and Ferrari (844).
Confident to continue upward trend, McLaren are trying to discover the right balance and maintain their position at the head of the midfield before major rule changes arrive in 2021.
The bulk of next year’s regulation changes are aimed at creating more competitive racing, particularly the introduction of a cost cap, to help teams with low budgets compete against Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
In 2021, McLaren are switching to Mercedes engines, meaning this will be their final year with Renault – likely to be their main contenders for fourth. It’s a promising development and one that may see their drivers’ in more formidable finishing positions.
A return to the front of the grid in the new era may well be achievable, but for now, they need to turn their focus to the year ahead and try to extract the maximum from the beautiful MCL35.
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