I’m sure at least some of this is emotionally charged, but I truly believe that McLaren really has its shit together in 2021. Despite recent pandemic-induced money troubles, the Papaya Orange team has a new engine supplier in Mercedes, a new sponsor in Gulf, a new championship-caliber driver in Daniel Ricciardo, and the only truly new chassis on the grid with its recently launched MCL35M.
Will the team have what it takes to defeat Mercedes and Red Bull to the championship? Probably not, but if everything meshes well, it’ll be fighting for wins week in and week out. Last year turned out to be a pretty great season for the team from Woking, securing third in the championship. Hopefully by improving basically every aspect of the team over the short off-season, the new finely-tuned machine will mesh even better when the season kicks off in a few weeks.
Because of differences in layout between the 2020 Renault powertrain and the 2021 Mercedes unit McLaren will be using, the team had to redesign their chassis while still staying within the “tokens” system of chassis updates that Formula One allows. As a result, the team spent much of the 2020 season spending its tokens on front aero updates so that it could redesign the back of the car for 2021 without issue. The mid-season nose update proved functional, as the team found some speed in the latter half of the season, catching up lost ground to the Racing Point team. That nose is much more in line with what Mercedes had been using.
The new 2021 regulations stipulate a less ornate floor and a smaller diffuser, meaning all teams will experience at least some loss in downforce and hopefully turbulence wake. McLaren redesigned the rear of its chassis to not only fit the Mercedes powerplant, but to be much more tightly-fit than the outgoing car. This should equate to less frontal area and reduced drag to find some of the top-speed that the orange cars were missing compared to the Mercedes team in 2020.
It’s probably not fair to call this a Papaya Mercedes in the way that the Racing Point was a Pink Mercedes in 2020. McLaren has put in a lot of work on the development of this chassis, and because Mercedes will be largely using the same chassis as it did last season, it’s possible McLaren made up a lion’s share of the ground to the Merc and Red Bull teams at the front of the grid.
Consider that Lando Norris has had another season of growth and experience, and Daniel really has the drive to get back to doing shoeys atop the podium again, and McLaren is maybe in the best position going into 2021 as compared to the rest of the grid. There’s something there to really believe in, whether it’s the hard technical skills, or the soft skills of the ridiculously likeable dudes behind the wheel.
We’ll see just how right or wrong I am over the next few months when the cars finally hit the track in anger. If I’m right, this could be the best season of F1 in recent memory. Just in time for the regulations to change next season.