COLUMN | Is the triple-header McLaren’s opportunity to escape Ferrari?

26-06-2021 09:00
Column
COLUMN | Is the triple-header McLaren’s opportunity to escape Ferrari?

A strong set of results in this triple-header we’ve reached is exactly what McLaren need and it couldn’t have started any better in the French Grand Prix last weekend. A fifth and sixth place for Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo secured the British team 18 points, more than any other midfield team and specifically, 18 more than Ferrari, their closest rivals. 

This points outburst from the Norris-Ricciardo duo regained the lead in the Constructors’ Championship for McLaren, but most notably was showed the potential of the two drivers together. With Ricciardo proving that he can battle amongst the top points scorers in any given Grand Prix, it will bring hope and belief to all those in the team that this is their chance to bridge a gap to the midfield and comfortably sit behind Mercedes and Red Bull.

Ricciardo was also seen expressing his feelings in a McLaren Unboxed video on the teams’ YouTube channel regarding the opportunity to gain momentum in this triple-header and I believe it has started off exactly how he would’ve liked it too.

However, is the triple-header really the opportunity for McLaren to say goodbye to Ferrari and hello to Mercedes and Red Bull?

Strength last year brings hope to triple-header

Coming into the season, the main goal for McLaren would’ve been to compete all season and come on top of the midfield, one which looks to be already confirmed. The British team have sat in third for six of the seven races we’ve had so far this season and currently hold a 16 point lead over their, Italian rivals, Ferrari. However, in the French Grand Prix last weekend we saw the Ferrari we expected to see following last years abysmal season. Carlos Sainz finished in 11th and Charles Leclerc was well off the pace down in 16th, whilst Norris and Ricciardo claimed fifth and sixth-place finishes.

One thing we all know to note is the strength of the McLaren car last year in the double-header to start the season at the Red Bull Ring. The season-opening Austrian Grand Prix saw Norris claim his first-ever Formula 1 podium, with, his then-teammate, Sainz finishing only two places behind him in fifth. Together the two combined for 26 points, placing them in second place behind only Mercedes. Norris, along with his podium, also completed the race with the fastest lap, this coming in the final lap of the race. This pace we saw last year not only proves that McLaren can perform well on this track but also shows that they can potentially finish even stronger this year as the car and drivers look to be more competitive.

The following race was the Styrian Grand Prix and, once again, McLaren were able to show their strength and score a fair amount of points. Norris finished in fifth place with Sainz finishing in ninth, however, it was the Spaniard’s time to finish with the fastest lap, claiming an extra point for the British team. This pace alone can add to the importance of the triple-header to McLaren’s success this season.

Ricciardo’s form is also a must need in order to gain a major advantage on Ferrari. Three sixth-place finishes, a seventh-place finish and two ninth-place finishes, alongside missing out on points once, has not been the start that McLaren and the Aussie would have hoped for. However, Ricciardo has been known to need time to get used to a new car, as was seen in his first season at Renault compared to his second.

He only placed inside the top five once in his first season with the French team and finished on 54 points. The 31-year-old struggled to feel comfortable in the car Renault provided him with and he ended up having 13 scoreless races. Six of these DNF’s or places outside the top 10 came in two spells of three races in a row. On the other hand, in his second season, he was a different breed of driver. Two podium’s and six top-five finishes flipped the script for Ricciardo and in my opinion, handed him the drive with McLaren for this season.

There is no doubt that this triple-header can be a complete game-changer for McLaren and as they got off to a superb start at the Circuit Paul Ricard last week, it does look like they have a very strong chance of extending their lead over Ferrari and pulling away into the middle of the season.

Stronger than Ferrari in practice sessions so far this weekend

FP1 was not what people expected from McLaren if they just looked at the timesheets, but if they understood why Norris placed so low down then they wouldn’t be so shocked. The young Brit had three lap times deleted in a row due to exceeding track limits at turn 10 every time, thus resulting in the 20-year-old placing in 16th. Ricciardo also didn’t have the strongest session but it was on par with Sainz and Leclerc. The Aussie finished in 12th, with Sainz in 11th and Leclerc in 10th but sat only 0.040 seconds off the Monegasque driver.

However, it was a completely different story in FP2. Ricciardo found himself second fastest in the hour-long session, finishing 0.336 seconds off of Max Verstappen. Norris ended FP2 in seventh place, 0.246 seconds behind his teammate, but it was the placement of the two Ferrari drivers that will have everyone cheering. Sainz and Leclerc struggled and were only able to best an 11th and 13th place finish, with Valtteri Bottas splitting the pairing.

This pace shown by the McLaren’s is a repeat of what was mentioned prior regarding the success last season, but it will be important to not get too ahead of themselves. Bottas placed 13th, Sergio Perez in ninth and Lewis Hamilton placed fourth and we all know that this won’t be the case come Saturday afternoon. However, the second place for Ricciardo will do wonders for his confidence and will no doubt be a key motivator ahead of the rest of the race weekend in Austria.

Make or break for McLaren?

Overall, it is safe to say that this triple-header is the best opportunity for McLaren to extend and secure the lead over Ferrari and the midfield. The success last week in the French GP and from the two races at the Red Bull Ring last season, along with the showing in FP2 yesterday afternoon, can only bode well ahead of qualifying and the race today and tomorrow. Once the triple-header is over, we are still only nine races into the season and to many, it may be too early to call what will happen at the top of the midfield, but I do think that McLaren will make great strides into holding on to their third-place finish in the Constructors’ Championship from last year.

Is the triple-header McLaren's chance to escape Ferrari and the midfield? Or should they focus on scoring points to hold onto their position in the Constructors' Championship? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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