Now that’s all said and done, it’s fair to say that the 2020 season has been a great one for McLaren. Sure, for a team that has won 182 races, 12 Drivers’ Championships and eight Constructors’ Championships, trailing only Ferrari, third place might not sound that great, yet it was the best result in many years – and, realistically, the best they could hope for, finishing behind Mercedes and Red Bull.
Still, McLaren has a lot to do before the 2021 season despite the rules only changing minimally. They’ll have Daniel Ricciardo coming in from Renault to join consistent performer Lando Norris, a new partnership with Gulf Oil and, probably most important of all, a Mercedes power unit replacing the Renault one. Things, then, are looking up for the Woking-based team, right?
Well, it depends. F1’s technical regulations were supposed to undergo a massive overhaul for next season, necessitating a totally new car design. With smoother aero, 18-inch wheels and the return of ground effect, the end goal of these new regulations are to make easier-to-follow cars, and as a result, closer racing. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those changes were pushed back to 2022.
As a result, 2021 technical regulations include some slight aero changes, increased weight, a set number of engine modes (no qualifying, aka “party”, mode), eco-friendly materials, fuel restrictions and limitations on teams’ reverse engineering efforts (to avoid a repeat of the Racing Point-Mercedes issue). As a result, most teams have more or less opted to keep the basic concept of their car largely the same for 2021, with the exception of the tweaks mentioned above.
However, despite those limitations, changing the engine supplier means this year’s MCL35 has to be almost completely redesigned not only to accommodate the new power unit and its related systems, but also balance out the rest of the car from that swap. Technical director James Key says 2021’s MCL35M will be “akin to a new car” due to the changes necessitated by the Mercedes engine.
“We can’t just carry over the chassis from 2020. We’ve had to do a lot of redesigning, especially when it comes to various systems on the car, such as cooling and electronics. Not only will the chassis be different, the gearbox will be too and, of course, the engine,” Key explained.
What this all means is that while frontrunners like Mercedes and Red Bull Racing will need to hone this year’s designs, always in accordance to the new rules, McLaren will have much more work to do and its 2021 car will differ more than the 2020 one. On the other hand, having the best engine on the grid is a huge plus, so if the chassis and aero are on par, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do as well this year – and, who knows, maybe challenge for podiums (or even, dare we say it, a win?) more consistently.