What we've learned from McLaren's F1 2021 headstart - The Race
Formula 1

What we’ve learned from McLaren’s F1 2021 headstart

Feb 19 2021
By Scott Mitchell and Edd Straw

McLaren became the first Formula 1 team to reveal its new 2021 car and run it on track this week, with Lando Norris and new signing Daniel Ricciardo both getting behind the wheel.

Williams’s surprise shakedown on Wednesday and AlphaTauri’s own launch on Friday mean McLaren is not a long way ahead of the other teams during launch season.

But it has got the early jump, and that headstart has given us plenty to dissect across a few key areas.

McLaren MCL35M F1 2021 car

Launch spec already looking outdated

McLaren was very protective of the detail of the MCL35M in the material it released from its two days of running at Silverstone, but there was a little more on display than was revealed at the launch.

The bargeboards, which are an evolution of last year’s design, were even covered up entirely in an edited photo of the car in the pitlane, while the angles chosen hid the diffuser detail.

But given the bargeboards are an evolution of last year’s, The Race was able to modify a photograph of the 2020 bargeboards to incorporate some of the changes that were visible in the material from Silverstone to approximate the changes.

Mcl35m 2021 Bb Rebuilt Augmented Wm

As Gary Anderson explained, the changes appear to be tied in to the impact of the aerodynamic rule changes given the importance of the bargeboards in setting up the flow structures feeding the floor.

The floor detail itself remains sketchy, but this is the first time we’ve seen a genuine 2021 car run on track to the new aerodynamic rules.

However, as technical director James Key confirmed on Monday, the team is still in the process of finalising its aerodynamic specification for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix at the end of March, so there is scope for more changes in this area before the first race of the season.

The front wing that was used at Silverstone was also the same as the one raced at the end of last season, meaning this could be an area that will be changed, perhaps as early as pre-season testing.


Mercedes reunion has strongest possible start

McLaren’s reunion with Mercedes brings the team full circle after its ill-fated decision to abandon its long-time partner for Honda back in 2015, then needing three years with Renault almost as a stop-gap solution.

Across 2015-17, McLaren struggled with Honda reliability. That included the pre-seasons, not just during the championships themselves.

Feb 16 : McLaren launches first 2021 F1 car

While McLaren never suffered so dramatically with Renault, it has enjoyed a couple of small wins in its preparations with Mercedes that show how far the team has come in the last few years.

According to Ricciardo, McLaren’s engine fire-up was a day early, and the first shakedown run at Silverstone went smoothly.

“You can’t ask for too much more in this part of the season,” said Ricciardo.

Daniel Ricciardo, Mclaren Mcl35m

That sets McLaren up well for its new era. Getting on track this week or not was unlikely to define the quality of its pre-season test in Bahrain, let alone the first race or the rest of the season.

But being the only team with a change in engine did mean McLaren ran the risk of a small setback turning into an unfortunate delay nobody else suffered from. And that would have been more painful with only three days of testing.

Mercedes admitted to having some engine “issues” in the off-season but McLaren seemed unperturbed by this when we spoke to the team on Monday.

Full-scale dyno running had been cleared without any problems – and it seems the shakedown reaffirmed that this reunion is off to the strongest possible start.

Daniel Ricciardo, Mclaren Mcl35m

Marginal gains for Bahrain

Shaking the car down was not just about avoiding time losses in Bahrain, though. It was about getting a headstart on as many lessons as possible – and these can be about making improvements, not just correcting faults.

“It sounds a bit different, feels a little bit different,” noted Norris after his first day.

“It’s not the easiest to tell loads about one lap, but I already have some comments, some feedback for my engineers, for the Mercedes lot.

“I’ll certainly do some more laps to get a good understanding. But so far so good.”

McLaren’s strong last couple of seasons mean the team is now in the pursuit of smaller gains, rather than being able to find big steps like it enjoyed from 2018 to 2019.

Daniel Ricciardo, Mclaren Mcl35m

Committing to its two filming days so early shows how much McLaren felt it would be able to get out of 200km of running at Silverstone. And its drivers still believed it was worthwhile even though the days were spent in the cold and rain.

Norris in particular was enthusiastic about the first opportunity to realise the work that started with this car “many months ago”.

“It’s the first time when I can really start to give a lot more feedback and we can start to shape a lot more of the direction we go through throughout the year,” he said.

“It’s the first day where we can as a team, when we’re at the racetrack, we can start to make bigger differences than other teams and every day you’ve got to maximise, no matter what. No matter if it’s cold, windy or rainy or whatever, there’s always things to learn and things to improve on.

“Today’s that day for us, to make those improvements to make sure we’re in the best possible position to go into the Bahrain test, and then to go into the race.”

Daniel Ricciardo, Mclaren

Plan to eliminate Ricciardo ‘panic’ begins

Ricciardo has called “fitting in” at McLaren the toughest task facing his integration after switching from Renault.

Unsurprisingly, Ricciardo wasn’t too fussed about how rusty he felt behind the wheel in the team’s shakedown runs. But it was interesting to note that one of his early observations was “I know the more laps I turn the more confidence and comfort I’ll feel with this team”.

This ties into McLaren’s plan to make Ricciardo feel like an instant team veteran, so that when he races with the team for the first time, it doesn’t feel like the first time.


To that end, we saw glimpses of practice starts and pitstops, and Ricciardo familiarising himself with the first ‘live’ switch changes on his steering wheel.

“Every little bit helps getting up to speed with the team going through all the procedures,” he said.

“The plan and the target is to get to Bahrain, Sunday afternoon, be on the grid and for there to be no inch of panic.

“It’s really just about feeling comfortable and familiar with all the crew. We’re trying to go through scenarios that we would face on a race weekend.

“And yes, we don’t have the atmosphere around us now but we can certainly try to replicate it and put a little bit of pressure on ourselves.”

Daniel Ricciardo And Lando Norris 2021 Mcl35m Launch

Ricciardo/Norris is a serious pairing, not light relief

Norris’s relationship with Carlos Sainz Jr was a fan favourite, so McLaren replacing Sainz with the uber-popular Ricciardo has unsurprisingly been well received.

Courtesy of some shenanigans between them when Ricciardo was at Renault, the fun Norris/Ricciardo dynamic has been picked out as a nice off-track element for McLaren to embrace this season and beyond.

However, it needs to be natural, rather than forced. And it needs to be viewed as what it is: a collaboration between two similarly chirpy personalities that is dwarfed by their competitiveness, and in no way allowed to influence the serious task in front of them at McLaren.

The launch of the 2021 McLaren featured very little ‘car’ but a lot of ‘driver’, and it’s clear that Ricciardo/Norris will be leant on a lot to lend F1 some personality and fun this season – by McLaren and the wider media.

Lando Norris, Mclaren

But Ricciardo summed it up very well when he said: “We both have a similar approach to the game, obviously we both love what we do, we enjoy our job and we’re not afraid to show that.

“We’re also coming from a bit of a different generation. I think I’m 10 years on Lando, so, I think it actually creates quite a good combination. Off track we’ll always be seen to be having a good time.

“But I do believe that the competition on track will be good, it will be fierce and more importantly I think driving the team forward.

“That’s something we really obviously want to state amongst ourselves, and do the best for the team and then go for it when the lights go out.”

The bottom line is this duo is tasked with helping McLaren take the final steps needed to fight for wins again. They will entertain along the way, but mustn’t be reduced to offering light relief.

Williams Racing Film Day, Silverstone, Uk

Another recovering giant’s also started early

OK, this is a cheeky addition, but we’re counting it because Williams effectively interrupted McLaren’s shakedown to tease its own early start by running the FW43B in between McLaren’s two days at Silverstone.

This tells us a little about each team. First it shows that McLaren’s not miles ahead of its rivals despite being the first to launch and hit the track. But that in itself reiterates why McLaren needed its Mercedes integration to go smoothly, and avoid starting on the backfoot.

As for Williams, it’s in a different phase of its recovery than McLaren and not adapting to a different engine supplier, but its early run is in line with its fledgling ascendancy.

It was only two years ago that Williams failed to make the start of testing, let alone shake its car down in advance.

These little victories are tiny stepping stones in reality, but they are worth noting – even if not as headline-grabbing as if they went badly in the other direction.


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