McLaren broke back into to the top three in the constructors’ championship for the first time since 2012 this season, overturning a 10-point deficit to Racing Point heading into the Abu Dhabi finale with fifth and sixth place for Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz respectively.
It’s a significant achievement for a team that was ninth just three years earlier.
It would be misleading to claim McLaren is now part of a ‘big three’ given there was only really a ‘big two’ of Mercedes and Red Bull in 2020 thanks to Ferrari’s fall. But it is confirmation the team is on the right trajectory and has firmly put the difficulties of the middle stages of the last decade behind it.
That’s the real significance of being able to finish third, which trumps the financial boost of several million dollars thanks to the difference between finishing third or fourth in the standings.
This is a team that has successfully fixed, or is on the way to eliminating, many of the weaknesses that led to its fall, which stretched beyond engine supplier Honda’s problems from 2015-17 and were laid bare by its initial struggles after switching to Renault for 2018. The process is far from complete, but there have been tangible gains.
“No-one could expect we were competing for P3 this year going into the season,” said McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl. “It’s a great achievement from every single member of the team.
“Next year, it will again be a battle probably between four or five teams for P3 to P7, similar to what we have seen this year. We simply need to stay realistic about what is possible.
“We still have these big restrictions in an outdated infrastructure. It will take two years until we have all the updates in place and then it takes time also to get this infrastructure to a place that you actually see the benefits from it. Until then, we have restrictions.
“But nevertheless, there’s still more potential in the team. That’s what we are exploring for next year.”
Seidl is right to warn that it’s no foregone conclusion McLaren will be able to hold onto third place next year. Despite the boost of a switch from Renault to Mercedes engines and the recruitment of Daniel Ricciardo to replace Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz, McLaren should remain in the midfield group with the potential of Ferrari taking a big step with its engine package.
The Woking-based team also had to rely on other qualities other than outright speed to take third in 2020, which is far from a criticism given it proves how strong other aspects of its game were.
McLaren had, on average, the fifth-fastest car this year. Racing Point had the quickest of the midfield group, with Ferrari’s peaks allowing it to end up fourth despite its weakness at power-sensitive circuits. The five midfield teams, a group also including Renault and AlphaTauri, were covered by just 0.363% in terms of average performance.
And this is the key measure, with McLaren edging 0.2% closer to the outright pace this season compared to last year despite Mercedes having made a bigger step forward than anticipated. It also produced a car that was conceived to open up new avenues of performance, so third place confirms progress on that score.
But there were no major weaknesses for McLaren relative to its midfield rivals, allowing it to beat Racing Point by seven points despite having a car that was, more often than not, a touch slower. While the caveat must be added that Racing Point was docked 15-points for illegally-designed brake ducts, McLaren’s consistency was laudable.
“We had a competitive car throughout the season, a bit of an all-rounder,” said Seidl. “We were in a position to get into Q3 most of the time [28 times out of 34] and always started the races in positions where we were able to fight for good points.
“Then we had a great team out here at the track as well which was simply very good in terms of execution of race weekends, qualifying sessions, strategy.
“On the pitstop side where we struggled in the beginning of the season in terms of pitstop times and consistency, we made a continuous improvement and in the end [that] was a strength as well for our team.
“Reliability was outstanding on the car side, we didn’t have a single DNF this year on the team side, which is a big step forward compared to last year. Also the strategy team did a great job on Sunday, and our two drivers obviously did a sensational job again.”
This is the foundation upon which McLaren hopes to build now that it has shored itself up financially during a difficult year. The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact, necessitating it putting its MTC headquarters up for sale (with McLaren remaining as long-term occupants) and also seeking new investment, which was confirmed in the form of a £185million buy-in to McLaren Racing announced ahead of the race in Abu Dhabi.
This ensures the major infrastructure projects such as the new windtunnel, driver-in-loop simulator and upgrades to production facilities, while delayed by circumstance, are all being worked on. It also sets the team up to operate at the limit of the cost cap that comes in next year.
In the grand scheme of things, had the season finished a race sooner and McLaren been fourth, it would have made little difference. But the fact McLaren was able to finish third is the ultimate validation of the path it has taken under the leadership of Seidl, technical director James Key. The head of McLaren Racing, Zak Brown, who set in motion much of this change and recruited both Seidl and Key, has also played a vital role.
The extra prize money will help, but most importantly this is a team that has now unquestionably regained its confidence and can be sure footed in its plans for the future.
“I’m optimistic that we are heading in the right direction and that we can also make the next steps as a team in the coming years,” says Seidl. “The news about [the investment] is obviously very important because this ensures that have all the resources that we need in order to run on a level playing field in terms of budget with the big teams – including our infrastructure updates, which is obviously key for our competitiveness.
“Now we simply need time to keep working on our plan and of course not to get carried away with the results from this year. We still have a long way to go, but we can do it, it’s simply down to us as a team to make it happen in the next years.”
Now McLaren must make sure that it builds on this third-place finish, both in 2021 and, critically, 2022.