Although McLaren CEO Zak Brown is hopeful the team's new MCL35M car will help them continue their climb up the grid, he doesn't expect them to close the gap to Mercedes and challenge for the championship just yet.
The Woking outfit will field a new driver lineup in 2021 with Daniel Ricciardo making the switch over from Renault and joining Lando Norris. While last year's lineup of Norris and Carlos Sainz scored 202 points en route to a third place finish in the constructors' championship, the 49-year-old doesn't think McLaren are ready to make another leap forward just yet.
"The field is unbelievably close," Brown told RacingNews365.com along with a select number of journalists after the team's car launch. "I think challenging for the championship would be unrealistic given the journey that we're on. I think all we can hope for and strive for is to close the gap to Mercedes, who we anticipate to be the fastest team in 2021.
"The rules haven't changed significantly so I don't think 2021 will look much different from 2020 for the entire grid, other than expecting it to get even closer. We went into Abu Dhabi, with the ability to finish third, fourth, or fifth and I think it's that close, and we anticipate it being even closer this year. All we can really do is key off who is the fastest team and hope that we close the gap in 2021. It's too competitive to give any sort of prediction."
One thing Brown does expect is for the season to be smoother than last time out, as COVID-19 turned the 2020 season on its head.
"I think it'll be easier to execute than last year, because last year we kind of learned on the fly," Brown stated. "So now we know how to successfully operate under COVID conditions. We very much are anticipating starting the season as we finished it in Abu Dhabi. Here at McLaren we're wearing masks inside the facility, we're continuing to very much social distance, etc.
"So I think it'll be easier in the sense of we know what the protocols are and what what works. And my own personal opinion is that the season will gradually open up but I think we will, for sure start the season with COVID impacting how we operate and hope that over the course of the year, things will open up as vaccines kick in."