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Formula 1

Has McLaren emerged as a surprise Mercedes/Red Bull rival?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

Nothing highlights McLaren’s ongoing Formula 1 renaissance like the suggestion it can be a threat to Mercedes and Red Bull in 2021.

After a hugely encouraging Imola round where Lando Norris showed searing pace in qualifying and banked McLaren’s first podium of the season, the 21-year-old claimed McLaren can fight the top two teams when it gets everything right.

Even Mercedes’ world champion Lewis Hamilton has noticed his former team’s ongoing rise, praising Norris for an “awesome” job in Italy and saying it was “so good” to see McLaren challenging at the front.

McLaren’s third place finish in last year’s constructors’ championship was its best result in almost a decade. But not being able to modify major mechanical components of its car over the winter in order to have permission to make the changes required to fit its new Mercedes engine for 2021 risked interrupting its momentum.

“When we get it right, once we understand the car a little bit more, we can be there and we can fight the Mercedes and the Red Bull” :: Lando Norris

Those fears have been quickly proven misplaced. McLaren was undeniably impressive in the Bahrain season-opener, where Norris said the team was “close, not miles away” from the top teams and team boss Andreas Seidl said McLaren had made a good step forwards compared to the top squads over the winter.

That underlined the quality of the Mercedes integration into the 2020 chassis, and also McLaren’s work in developing its aerodynamic package and adapting to the new 2021 aero rules at the rear of the floor.

But Norris says that because testing and the first race took place at the same track, it was difficult to know exactly what to expect outside of Bahrain. Which is what made the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix a fascinating litmus test.

Apr 19 : Emilia Romagna Grand Prix review

There was no doubt McLaren had done an excellent job to retain its position as best of the rest in Bahrain but some uncertainty remained – especially regarding its progress relative to the top two teams.

Mercedes had been pegged back but Red Bull looked even stronger. McLaren wasn’t even the fastest midfield team in Sakhir qualifying and while Norris was best of the rest in the grand prix he was still a long way behind the leaders.

Hence yours truly suggesting that the only concrete conclusion worth drawing was that the top teams were still out of reach – a sentiment Norris agreed with.

Lando Norris McLaren Imola 2021

“I think it took us a little bit by surprise,” he said of his qualifying pace, which should have been within a tenth of pole and earned third on the grid ahead of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull and Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes had Norris’s lap not been deleted for a marginal track limits offence.

“We had different expectations. Coming into the weekend I wouldn’t have said we could have been P2 because I think it was obvious that Red Bull and Mercedes were quite a way ahead after Bahrain.

“But they weren’t miles away.

“We showed [in qualifying at Imola] that when we get it right, once we understand the car a little bit more, we can be there and we can fight the Mercedes and the Red Bull.”

That’s a big claim, so does it hold up under scrutiny?

But for the track limits offence, Norris would have been on the second row of the grid on merit at Imola, just a fraction behind the lead Mercedes. Regardless of whether Red Bull underachieved, that showed serious performance. As did Norris’s rather untroubled charge to third in the race.

The Imola weekend added a crucial second circuit to our bank of data from 2021. And McLaren performed well, improving its car through the weekend, and establishing itself as third-best yet again.

“We started off pretty steady in in FP1, we were quite a way off and the same in FP2,” said Norris.

“So we didn’t start well but I think we’ve learned a lot about the car this weekend, just because it’s a new track and the cars are a little bit different, the characteristics are different, and we’re still learning every session we do.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Qualifying Day Imola, Italy

“We were learning and I think we were putting it into practice in the next run that we did. FP1 to FP2, overnight to FP3 and into quali, we kept making changes and improvements and unlocking more potential on the car.”

The upshot was an impressive performance relative to last year, when McLaren found Imola one of the tougher tracks.

Last year it had a Q3-marginal car, was 1.2 seconds from pole and six tenths behind Red Bull. Had Norris’s best lap counted it would have been within a tenth of both this time.

In all likelihood this was McLaren at its best and in a position to try to take advantage of Red Bull slightly underachieving

“It was very encouraging to see that the team together with the guys from Mercedes have produced over the winter definitely a competitive car,” said Seidl.

“If you look at the gap that we had today to the usual suspects at the front to Mercedes and Red Bull it was nearly nothing. Even if you take the four tenths we’re back now, compared to where we have been last time coming into Imola, it’s just encouraging to see that we definitely made a good step forward again with the car.”

While Imola was so overwhelmingly positive for McLaren, there were still signs of how big its deficit can be.

In the race, once the team moved Norris ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo to test his pace in clean air, he had an 11-lap run where he lost no time to race winner Verstappen, who was fading at the end of his stint on intermediates.

But the McLaren was no match for the Mercedes of Hamilton at that stage of the grand prix, or for either lead car at the end of the race.

While Norris did a tremendous job to hold onto a podium on softer tyres, he still shipped 23 seconds to Verstappen in 20 laps.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Lando Norris McLaren Imola 2021

That tallied with the Bahrain race, when McLaren was more than a free pitstop behind the second Mercedes. These are still fundamentally big deficits and indicative of the progress required.

In all likelihood this was McLaren at its best and in a position to try to take advantage of Red Bull slightly underachieving. But there is reason to believe that will be replicated at times this season and if (or when) that happens, who knows what McLaren might achieve if it is able to gain crucial track position?

We’re still only two races into the new season so caution should still be exercised, especially given the likes of Ferrari and AlphaTauri look so competitive that McLaren might not always even be best of the rest and Red Bull’s imperfect Imola qualifying meant the performance spread through the field was considerably closer compared to Bahrain.

Lando Norris McLaren Imola 2021

If Verstappen hadn’t made a mistake in qualifying and Red Bull had been two or three tenths clear as Mercedes expected, most teams would have been roughly as far off as they were in Bahrain.

But that doesn’t detract from the step McLaren made relative to Imola 2020, and in any case the top guys not making mistakes is part of the challenge. That pressure will only intensify with an extra team in the mix.

McLaren’s peaks this season might be so high that the top two teams have no room for slip-ups.

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