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McLaren

How McLaren plans to renew Verstappen and Red Bull fight

The fight behind Red Bull and Max Verstappen is tight with four teams in the mix - but one was able to break free in 2023 but could not maintain it at the start of 2024. What is going on at McLaren?

Verstappen Norris Saudi
Analysis
To news overview © Red Bull Content Pool

This time last year, McLaren was driving around disconsolately at the back of the Formula 1 field.

The team openly admitted at the launch of the MCL60 that it had missed internal targets, and in an early season reshuffle, technical director James Key left his post, as the team poached key figures from Red Bull and Ferrari - although they did not start work until earlier this year.

Not only was the car slow, but in Bahrain, the highly-rated Oscar Piastri retired early on, whilst Norris's race was ruined with a pneumatic leak that required pit-stops every few laps to replenish the tanks as there were also reliability concerns.

After the first eight races, the team had just 17 points to its name, with 12 of those coming in the chaotic Australian Grand Prix as the team languished sixth in the Constructors'.

But upgrades began to filter through, starting in Austria and then Singapore that transformed the package allowing Norris and Piastri to become the closest challengers to the all-conquering Max Verstappen in his Red Bull.

Piastri took a first Sprint win in Qatar as the team impressed at a variety of circuits, but especially high-speed ones like Qatar or Suzuka, but a long-held weakness in low-speed corners remained.

The turnaround in the second-half of the season finished with McLaren taking fourth in the Constructors' - and it would have finished closer to Mercedes and Ferrari if it had had the same performance throughout the year as it did in that second-half.

McLaren the challenger to Red Bull?

Heading into the winter, McLaren was tipped to be Red Bull closest challenger having seemingly figured out its car concept, and enjoyed good tyre wear and reliability with a settled driver pairing in Norris and Piastri.

Even Verstappen singled McLaren out.

"Behind us, the performance in 2023 fluctuated," he said.

"It was close together, so who is going to be our main competitor depends on their development. The most impressive team, if you know where they had to come from, was definitely McLaren, so it looks like they can be very strong next year."

But in the first two races of 2024, McLaren's results were P6 and P8 in Bahrain, followed by P4 and P8 in Saudi Arabia.

Not necessarily that bad in the tight gaggle of four teams behind Red Bull - but it is clear that Red Bull has make advances over McLaren - especially in races.

The first hints were there when the car was launched, as Team Principal Andrea Stella noted that "not all the points we want to address are ready for the launch" with development focused on bringing these upgrades as soon as possible.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

McLaren's strengths and weaknesses

"The current limitations for us are very well known, we've talked about that very frequently," Stella told media including RacingNews365.

"They are well exposed [in Jeddah], together with the points of strength, and you will have seen that anybody behind the McLaren in Sector 1 would lose ground.

"When you have these fast-flowing corners, the car responds very well, but when the corner is long, like the last corner, you really need to hold the steer for a long-time, the car gives up a little bit and we lose a lot of time - which is where Ferrari is very strong.

"That is why their car was so competitive in the last sector, just that corner, and the other limitation, is that we would like to have more top speed.

"These two features are very well exposed at this track with long straights and a couple of very long corners where the limitation is visible."

Upgrades and development

The team is satisfied at the moment, as it has slotted into third place in the pecking order behind Red Bull and Ferrari, and is competing with Mercedes and Aston Martin, but CEO Zak Brown is optimistic.

"Everything we see in the factory in terms of development looks good, hopefully we can continue to develop quickly," he said.

"If a team or two blink their eyes, we can turn those six second-place finishes and nine third-place finishes from last year into wins."

"We are in a much better position than we were 12 months ago. I don't see why the development curve can't continue. If we can do that, we should only get faster this year."

Stella also pointed to a sizeable upgrade that is in the works of the new wind-tunnel.

"When we go to Suzuka, we will be fast, so it will be a good track for us," Stella added.

"Otherwise, it is a battle for development, and the development may be very visible developments like an aerodynamic upgrade, or there could be some other things you can deliver from a mechanical point of view.

"At the moment, we have some minor things that will come for Australia and Japan, but they will only be worth a few milliseconds, but hopefully within the first third of the season, we will have a major upgrade."

McLaren may surprise later this year

That people at McLaren are happy with what is, on paper, a meagre start to the season is due to last year's poor start.

In that respect, there has been a huge leap forward in 12 months, but compared to six months ago, however, McLaren seems to have.

If McLaren's updates prove to be a hit as they were last year, the team could once again make a sizeable jump forward, but time will tell - although it does appear at the moment that Red Bull and Verstappen seem to be a bridge too far.

			© RN365/Michael Potts
	© RN365/Michael Potts

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