‘Realistic’ – it was a word uttered by all three of McLaren’s senior management during the opening five or so minutes of a half-hour press conference as the MCL35 was presented.
McLaren tumbled down Formula 1’s pecking order through the 2010s, reaching several points so low that picking out its lowest ebb remains subject to opinion.
But last year it rose to fourth in the Constructors’ Championship, its highest placing since that post-2012 decline set in, and pocketed its first podium since the hybrid era’s opening event.
The green shoots of recovery are firmly in place but the humility that transformed the team from 2018 into 2019 remains steadfast, given the chasm that still exists to the top three teams.
“It feels a lot better than this time last year,” said Zak Brown at the launch of the MCL35.
“It’s nice environment to walk around the factory and the race track, it’s a real team feeling, I’m excited.
“That being said the gap to third is still very big in Formula 1 terms so I think we have to be realistic that we hope to close that gap.
“The first thing we need to do is not go backwards and that in itself isn’t easy because we’ve got great competition in the midfield. I’m very pleased, but still a long way to go.”
It is a salient mindset to adopt given that 12 months ago Renault had established itself as fourth-best and was eyeing up Formula 1’s big three, only to endure a problematic campaign that has triggered a mini-reset at Enstone.
Formula 1 teams are currently in a quasi-peculiar predicament given the impending overhaul of the regulations for 2021. For while the power unit regulations remain, and the better the team the better the chances, the aerodynamic rules will be ripped up, while a cost cap is about to kick in.
McLaren is in the position of not wanting to lose its upwards momentum and positive spirit while wary that 2021 presents its biggest chance of re-establishing itself among the elite.
“One thing is targets set for the car development,” explained Andreas Seidl, entering his first full year as McLaren’s Team Principal.
“At the same time we are on this journey and getting back up on the grid in Formula 1. We have set a lot of targets we want to achieve in terms of the team side, the organisation, infrastructure, the way we work together, and so on, and I can definitely say we’re quite happy with what we achieved over the winter. I think there’s a lot of things that make us optimistic going into the season but at the same time we need to be realistic about what is achievable from one year to the next.”
Seidl’s comments are astute. Third to fourth is just one position. But McLaren’s P4 last year was achieved with 145 points and one podium result. Red Bull’s P3 was captured with 417 points and three victories. It has prompted McLaren to be a little more ambitious with its MCL35, the standout points of which was a matte livery, a tighter front nose, and neater packaging. That has been the work of James Key, who joined McLaren as its new Technical Director last March.
“We have changed a few areas,” he said. “The bodywork is following a trend with a very narrow sidepod, which is quite an exercise in packaging, so I guess you have to plan quite early for that sort of the thing, engine installation and so on. It’s a similar exercise with gearbox to match that philosophy.
“On the rear part of that there’s been a lot of suspension work too, so I suppose the cockpit backwards is a very different approach to what we had before.
“But the [MCL] 34 is very much the father of this car, we tried to carry forward what we learned last year, so there’s been a process, and then add what we felt were opportunities we couldn’t unlock in the 34 with the geometry we had.
“We could see that some weaknesses were quite similar across teams we were competing with [in the midfield], when you look at the bigger three teams, so we have been looking closely at those kinds of area, we have made progress there.
“The medium-term target is to maintain our position and hopefully close the gap a bit and then build on that, so if we can be in that place then we can achieve that target, the realistic target that we have.”