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Can McLaren challenge Red Bull this year?

McLaren finished off the 2023 season in strong form, but is it enough to challenge the dominance of Red Bull in 2024?

Verstappen Norris Brazil
To news overview © Red Bull Content Pool

If you look at the amount of points scored between the Austrian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, Lando Norris scored the second-most points of any driver apart from Max Verstappen.

Although many wrote off McLaren at the start of 2023, the team did temper their expectations pre-season by admitting they had missed their targets for the new year.

This was reflected by their results on track as they raced with an outdated car, against teams who had spent weeks clambering together an effort to reap early rewards. Team Principal, Andrea Stella, highlights the 'disjointed' nature of the team at the beginning of last year following the departure of nearly the entire technical leadership team.

"The numbers were already telling us that we could have struggled even from a conceptual point of view. We knew that we needed to have a late change of concept for the car," he told media, including RacingNews365.

"We saw the concepts that we were pursuing wouldn't have taken us very far, in terms of aerodynamic development. There were [also] some elements of how the team were interacting at the time, which were a little disjointed and they needed to be reconciled. We needed to evolve towards a more effective organisational structure."

Like many things in life, good things come to those who wait. When McLaren introduced their transformative upgrade at the Austrian GP, the difference was immediate: Norris was fourth while Oscar Piastri was 16th.

It was not long before they started challenging for podiums and race wins, with the team emerging as a credible threat to Red Bull over Mercedes and Ferrari.

The team has invested heavily in a new wind tunnel, which came online last year, and the mood within the camp is optimistic after their strong finish last year.

Maintaining the momentum

Where McLaren excelled last year was the effectiveness of their updates, particularly after their Singapore package.

Although the team missed out on the race victory from Carlos Sainz, they would later excel at the high speed Japanese and Brazilian GPs.

Stella made it clear that the team wanted to "retain these gradients" heading into next year, although this might be easier said than done given Red Bull hardly updated the RB19 throughout last year.

If the rumours about the RB20 being a significant upgrade on their dominant package, McLaren will need to find a lot of time over the course of the winter - not least with Mercedes and Ferrari scrambling to produce race-winning cars.

McLaren managed to poach the "high level" talent from Red Bull's inner circle last year in the form of Rob Marshall. He's not only oversaw their success through the Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen years, but he was also part of 'Team Enstone' when they took titles with Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006.

The early indication is that McLaren has found a solid base to work from with their 2024 challenger, having now been able to exploit a much more effective design process in-house.

"What I can say about comparison with where we are right now is that these development gradients have definitely been linear," said Stella.

"Whether they are steep enough to be competing for podiums or not this one we will see on track. But we've definitely been able to, in every area, keep generating good ideas and having good interactions in the team with clarity as to who is doing what. All these seem to be in a much better place.

"At the same time, we have to add [in] these resources that we have just started to take advantage of. This car has been developed in the new MTC wind tunnel from September onwards, which is good benefit from a technical point of view.

"It's being produced in the new composite manufacturing area, it's being tested in the new simulator, and as of the 2nd January important resources join the team in Rob Marshall and David Sanchez. So we are definitely in a stronger place than 12 months ago."

The race to perfection

Part of Red Bull's dominance last year came from their sheer perfection in everything they did to execute a race weekend.

It was rarely an 'arrive and drive' situation for Verstappen and Sergio Perez, as they both had to overcome challenges throughout race weekends to achieve the RB19's potential.

Red Bull never dropped the ball on their pit stops either, eventually leading to a world record in Hungary (1.98s on Perez) - something that we all thought was impossible due to the heavier 18-inch tyres.

Only one other team managed to produce a quicker pit stop: McLaren. At the sweltering Qatar Grand Prix, they produced a 1.80s stop on Norris.

While it's unlikely the team will produce this at every race this season, it is the level of perfection needed to extract the final tenths and gain track position when it's key.

With capable drivers in Norris and Piastri, McLaren stand a chance of being the biggest upsetters to Red Bull's form.

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