Nowhere for McLaren to hide: ‘Being 0.9s off Red Bull wouldn’t look good’

2018 F1 season preview: McLaren

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Grand Prix Driver, the McLaren documentary which appeared during the off-season, told the story of their nightmare build-up to last year’s championship.

Producer Manish Pandey said the feature bridged the gap between two significant divorces in the team’s recent history. It began with the late-2016 split from CEO Ron Dennis and ended with last year’s decision to end the relationship with power unit supplier Honda.

The change in this team’s fortunes in recent years has been truly seismic. In 2012 they produced the outright fastest car of the year and were championship contenders; five years later only one of their rivals finished behind them in the constructors’ championship.

Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2018
The team’s livery is largely blank
Now McLaren has gone from being a works engine team to a customer. Tellingly, it has gone from being a team led by Ron Dennis, who described cost capping as “pie in the sky”, to one whose commercial operation is headed up by Zak Brown, who describes the team as “fans” of cost capping.

You only have to look at the car in profile to appreciate why. The MCL33’s stunning new Papaya Spark livery with two-tone blue detailing is largely unencumbered by sponsor logos. One of the most prominent belongs to the lifestyle brand run by star driver Fernando Alonso.

Brown expects the team will become more attractive to sponsors once its form improves. “I think when we hit the track that will help,” he said in February. “There are some people understandably that want to see how we perform.”

“Coming off ninth in the championship last year doesn’t make selling partners any easier. So I think if we can quickly demonstrate we’re no longer ninth-place team that will just build by itself.”

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A lot is riding on the MCL33 chassis and the Renault power unit which the team worked flat-out to fit into a space previously left for a Honda.

The team’s testing performance prompted some lurid headlines but it was not the unmitigated disaster of 12 months ago. The team did end the eight days of running at the foot of the mileage table again, but this time it has the reassuring knowledge that the two other Renault-powered teams have racked up lengthy runs on the power unit.

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2018
How close can McLaren get to Red Bull?
But while a variety of niggling problems consigned the MCL33 to periodic extended stays in the McLaren garage, the Toro Rosso-Honda motored pass with galling frequency. When the chequered flag fell for the final time only the vastly better-equipped Mercedes and Ferrari teams had covered more laps.

“I think they’re doing a good job,” conceded Brown during the tests. “We’re focused on our own programme. I know there’s a lot, as you’d expect in testing, of comparisons between them and us.”

“Eric [Boullier, racing director] and the full team are focused on our programme. I’m very confident we’re going to have a good season. We know they’re a great company and it was just a matter of time until they see some improvements. They’re having a good testing and good on them.”

For McLaren to come good on its oft-repeated assertion last year that it had a great chassis let down by a terrible engine, it needs to be on terms with fellow Renault users Red Bull, not scrapping with its junior team running their unwanted engines.

“If we’re nine tenths off Red Bull that wouldn’t look good,” Brown admitted in a pre-launch briefing. “We don’t want to hide. It’s showtime.”

They aren’t going to be able to hide. The stakes are incredibly high for McLaren in 2018.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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64 comments on “Nowhere for McLaren to hide: ‘Being 0.9s off Red Bull wouldn’t look good’”

  1. I cant remember if it was Eric Boullier or Zac Brown (I think Eric) but they were saying last year that McLaren had the best chassis, or at least as good as the others. Now with the same engine as Red Bull they must be a little worried with a poor testing. Renault have just said all 3 teams will get equal equipment (until the works team see a chance to go past RB of course) so will see where they are at.

    I think the top 3 are set, in what order, who knows! But its would be great to see Force India, McLaren and Renault pushing them and grabbing regular podiums.

    1. @garns – if a podium or a top 5 finish is periodically possible* for this year, then it would turn out to be a brilliant season.

      * Caveat – assuming it’s not due to engine failures, but due to actual racing.

      1. @phylyp – agreed with that, people will always grab an advantage when the lead cars fail (look at Lance Stroll for his podium last year, did everything right, drove well and stayed out of trouble) but seeing McLaren be very competitive would be great.

        Also looking forward to seeing how Vandoorne stacks up against Alonso. He was much better in the last half of last year and did admit he struggled in the first part of the season. But if he is going to be the driver Ron saw him to be he needs to beat, or at least be very close to Alonso this year. Not easy to do. The inter team battles in McLaren and Red Bull this year will shape a few careers.

    2. I am not sure it was a poor test. Certainly in my area of software development I would be very worried if testing went perfectly and no issues were highlighted. This is because I would always expect issues and if none occurred then I would be questioning if we tested well enough.

      However on the flip side it was not a brilliant test either as a couple of issues probably should not have happened.

      The test however will have been a success if McLaren got what they wanted out of it (ie good baseline data and good correlation with the wind tunnel, CFD and Simulator along with ironing out any potential issues before the season starts).

      The car certainly looked like it had some good speed at times and looked reliable apart from those certain issues they had. Only McLaren know if their test was successful or not.

      What was clearly poor testing was the previous Honda years where they barely made it around the track.

      1. to follow uour logic means Mercedes should be “Very Worried since no issues have been highlighted”… come on, be realistic, for a team such as Mclaren and a proven PU, their reason is kinda unreasonable don’t you think? for all those talk, interview of a better year for them clearly it is not a good test for them. They are not as fast as RBR, not as realiable as RBR, so what really was good about the test for Mclaren? Ohh I know, the color their car, since they are too busy to highlight the new Papaya Orange scheme instead of getting things right as they should have been doing over the winter. Failed wheel nut? Exhaust Clip? Burned body work? those problem are for amatuers, not for a team like Mclaren.

        1. Chris
          All fair points, but testing is exactly that. To find out if there are problems you need to work on. What, since you ask, was a success for McLaren during this test? They have a fast car, at least on the hypersoft. Better to have fast, if unreliable car, than a slow one.

        2. Well its not all doom and gloom for McLaren, by your logic they at least racing against other armatures – Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, Williams, Renault etc have had failed wheel nuts. (And I am not even talking about at testing – in races)

      2. Interesting view on software testing, I am also an engineer and most of the time I do find problems with my own work in testing but occasionally, things go right and it works first time. I pat myself on the back when that happens as I did my work well enough the first time around.

        I fully expect Maclaren to be sandbagging and they will be wanting to shock everyone with how good they are however I have serious doubts that they do actually have a decent car this year. I am keen to find out in Australia.

    3. It was Alonso, who said it once, while venting his frustration with the engine in one of the 1000 interviews he did last year. All other times he and the team principals have only said that the chassis is good, but the story “McLaren claims they have the best chassis” is just too good to pass up and sets them up too nicely for failure to be tempered by annoying facts.

      1. All other times he and the team principals have only said that the chassis is good, but the story “McLaren claims they have the best chassis” is just too good to pass up and sets them up too nicely for failure to be tempered by annoying facts.

        Not true. Alonso has claimed on several occasions that the chassis is the “best”. Other team members have used words such as “one of the best”, “caught up with top teams” Read below for proof.

        1. from the second article: “among the best on the grid” not the best. BIG difference.

    4. Renault have just said all 3 teams will get equal equipment

      They are legally required to provide equal equipment (and software/settings).

  2. Sorry but when will McLaren realize it’s the Alonso curse. Doesn’t matter want engine is in the back, long as Alonso is there they will be doomed! All the negativity they went through in the past with Alonso and then they take him back was never going to be a happy ending, it doesn’t work in romantic relationships, working relationships or any type of relationship period. They may get a couple podiums or maybe even the odd win while he is there for the next year or two but they won’t win a constructors champ for a loooong time (just look at the last time Ferrari won it)

    1. The infamous Alonso Curse again.
      The same curse which made him and Renault double World Champions.
      The same curse which improved McLaren from 3rd in 2007 to (* what should have been) 1st in 2008.
      The same curse which helped Ferrari improve from 4th in 2009, to 3rd when Alonso joined.

      So far all teams did better when Alonso first joined them.
      There might be a curse though when he rejoins a team :p

      * Renault drivers collecting the most points in 2008.

  3. Nowhere for McLaren to hide: ‘Being 0.9s off Red Bull wouldn’t look good’

    The one thing I’m looking forward the most this season I believe. Can McLaren finally show the pace that they’ve been speaking about since 2013.

    Maybe on the same day their new headsponsor is revealed…

    1. That’ll probably be the day Force India announce their new name and Ferrari leave F1.

      1. or exactly one week after the season opener this year ;)

  4. The McLaren story holds a lot of interest for me, their slip from glory is a massive and very public one. Their performance will be scrutinised and the points-statistics will be the ultimate truth to show if they have managed to engineer a great chassis. It’s not about winning races as such, it’s about performance relative to the other Renault engine cars, this year they aren’t in the unique position they were in with Honda. Like the article says – there’ll be nowhere to hide.

    [I can’t bloody wait for this season to start!]

  5. Start Season, Start!!!! :) And let’s realize how hard everyone was trying to hide their form from eachother..
    These articles are a good read but , in my opinion, irrelevant as not even after Australia will we really know the true form of some teams.. We will get a good indication though…
    I am moaning and I am in a bad mood and these articles don’t make it any better!!!! Reason?? We are STILL 8 days before Australia, so ….
    START SEASON, START Already!!!! :)

    1. @vaiosp – just watch old races and F1 funny moments on You Tube, also a few documentaries as well, the Senna one always good, and I watched Rush again the other day- but yes, season start needs to hurry up already :)

  6. But Mclaren has the best chassis on the Grid according to Fernando 😂😂😂

  7. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out as there are so many variables.

    If the Renault PU turns out to be still down on power, will they throw everything at making sure their Chassis suits the non-power tracks like Red Bull did? If its closer to the others, how will they stack up against Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

    So much to get excited about but we’ve all said that before and ended up being disappointed as one team (most likely to be Mercedes) drives off into the distance and leaves the scraps for the rest.

    Fingers, toes and everything else is crossed. Roll on Melbourne, although as said by Vaios, we won’t really know until the first few races are done.

  8. If Mercedes drive away form the rest of the pack, I won’t actually mind if we get close performance between Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren (and any others, Renault? Could Haas even be the dark horse some have suggested?!!) and get some good scraps on track.

  9. MB (@muralibhats)
    15th March 2018, 12:07

    I always believed that Grand Prix Driver eas produced to save the face if McLaren and put all the blame on Dennis and Honda for the poor performance. Hope they dont satrt another season of it and rename it Grand Prix Racer 😂🤓.

    1. MB (@muralibhats)
      15th March 2018, 12:08

      Pardon the typo errors

    2. My experience as a bus driver is those most likely to photograph me without my consent and try to embarrass me with it are those who have created an argument, so I’m not interested in McLaren’s PR film. Maybe later in the year I will have a look at it. I don’t think blaming Honda for all the downtime at last year’s pre-season test is fair.

  10. I actually expect Mac to be at least somewhat off RBR’s pace, at least initially. It’s a brand new marriage for McRenault, whereas RBR are highly engrained with them. If Mac isn’t off the pace that will be very very impressive. I highly doubt though that it is a simple as saying ‘well they said they had a great chassis, so now that they’ve slapped in a Renault pu, Bob’s your Uncle.’

    If F1 is difficult and challenging Mac should not be able to match RBR yet, possibly not all year. But I hope to be wrong on that and I certainly think they’ll be far far stronger than with Honda.

    1. @robbie Absolutely, I expect them to be off the pace of Red Bull at first and agree that it is highly unlikely they will match them all year having changed the PU and reconfigured the chassis layout. It’s the in season development and honing of the package they have to build towards 2019 that matters, will be fascinating to see whether they can outperform the improving Renault team and snap at the heels of Red Bull. Fourth in the constructors with a few opportunist podiums would be a healthy sign.

    2. @robbie

      I agree. Due to the new partnership, I expect them to be off RBR’s pace as well. The question is how much? If they are 0.9s off Red Bull’s pace, it’s not something to be proud of, considering they were only 1 to 1.2 seconds off the Red Bull pace with a Honda engine. By mid season, if we see McLaren off Red Bull’s pace by 3 to 4 tenths, then they’ve done a decent job.

      I’d realistically expect them to challenge Red Bull by 2019. However, we don’t now if Red Bull would still be a Renault customer then.

    3. Agreed. 5th or 6 will be seen as ok. 1 or 2 podiums would also help. Development wise, they will be fine. But they need to get on top of their unreliability issues quickly. I think we also owe Honda an apology as, it now seems all but clear, that the reliability problems might not have been all their fault after all. The ambitious packaging of their last few cars has something to do with it.

      1. @bonbonjai Is it a fact that even in season 3 of McHonda, McLaren was still forcing ambitious packaging that was harming their car in performance and reliability? I’d have thought they would have learned at least after 2 seasons that that was not working. I’m not grilling you at all on what you’ve said, I just don’t know if that is what actually happened, and I would think that before the relationship fell apart, which nobody wanted, they’d have addressed that. Ie. I would think the bulk of the blame still needs go to Honda’s poor Pu so I don’t know that they are owed an apology just because their current version of pu, presumably advanced from last year if they’ve developed at all, and is one that Mac does not know from, has shown vague potential from testing with STR. If it was truly the packaging to a damaging degree one would think Honda would have had more cache to put their feet down and explain what more they could do if only the packaging were such and such.

        1. Robbie
          Regarding the packaging for the previous 2 years with Honda, I think Mclaren appear to be convinced their packaging was not an issue. That at least is what I suppose, as if they though it was, they would have changed it when they moved to Renault. Come to think of it, could they have had the time to change it, after swapping to Renault so late. I hope they are right, as if they are not, and the tight packaging is a major issue, they could spend the whole season trying to fix that. I think they will be OK, well, I hope they will be. 1 more week……………………

  11. Two quick thoughts:
    A) it feels weird to have a McLaren Renault. Anyone know what i mean?
    B) It’s also kind of weird there is no renault badge on that Mclaren. In a ‘lets just put the writing somewhere where noone sees it’ kind of way. Almost like Mclaren also felt like A).

    1. RB doesn’t have a Renault badge for quite some time, not even the lettering. Toro Rosso didn’t had it either

      Maybe they are embarrassed, it is like using that pair of socks that have an hole and you just hope you don’t have to take your shoes off during the day and let everyone see it.

      1. yeah but RB also tried to get rid of Renault by any means necessary and desperately tried to safe face with this ridiculous rebadging scheme

        1. I mean for quite a long time, they had the infinity logos, which gets me back to the good shoes bad socks situation

      2. I think that’s because Cyril told Red Bull to stop their constant crying and blaming of Renault engines. Rebadge it whatever you want and stop whining. It hasn’t completely stopped the whining, but it’s definitely reduced it from the 2014 and 2015 levels.

    2. It is odd because McLaren have had an engine manufacturer’s badge on the nose for decades, and in their name. Even when Mercedes had their own team McLaren kept the Mercedes badge. Now they are just ‘McLaren’ and the nose is blank, which looks weird actually. Like it was all an afterthought and they’ve just about managed to put ‘Renault’ on the engine cover.

    3. @mrboerns They should’ve gone with “TAG” again – (I’ve said this wayu too many times I guess?) I’d love to see Red Bull TAG-Heuer against McLaren-TAG

  12. Sponsors on the MCL33 (excluding Pirelli and Renault): 12 – SAP, NTT, Petrobras, Dell, Kimoa, CNBC, Airgain, Chandon, Richard Mille, Hilton and NRF.

    Sponsors on the W09 (excluding Pirelli and Mercedes themselves): 4 – Petronas, Qualcomm, Epson and Tommy Hilfiger.

    While it is imperative that McLaren get a title sponsor, I really am getting tired of fans shouting “the McLaren has no sponsors on it” when they clearly do, they just don’t have a title sponsor. F1 in general is struggling to attract sponsorship, that is the issue we should be focussing on.

    1. True, and even without a title sponsor, I don’t think anyone is not categorizing McLaren as a ‘have’ team, with tons of resources at their disposal. So while imperative for F1 in general and of course especially the smaller teams, Mac seems in fine shape financially and with resources intact.

    2. now that you mentioned those sponsors, and seeing the Petrobras brand in there, does anyone know what is the deal with the fuel supplier for McLaren? They have a contract for 2018 with Castrol for fuel and oil, yet it doesn’t appear on the car, instead they have Petrobras and Lubrax

      1. Easy, the Castrol oil is the oil that is burned illegaly- don’t want to draw any attention to it @johnmilk :D

      2. I think it is exactly that Sponsorship money from Petrobras, but fuel/lubricants from BP/Castrol in 2018.
        It will be all Brazilian next year; maybe even the wax ;)

        1. i bet Ron Dennis would support Alonso getting a good waxing…

        2. They could at least come up with a new name for the lubricants, lubrax sounds like something that you could buy on a sex shop

          1. @johnmilk As I understand it they will use BP/Castrol this season the same as the works Renault team, but from next year they will use Petrobras.

  13. Maybe soon we will have to admit that, like Williams, Mclaren can fall completely from glory for decades. Happy with a podium here and there. That would be dreadful. But it’s not impossible.

    1. @tango I think I said this already back in 2009. Shelved it in the ending years of the V8 but truly believe is something that will happen eventually. They’re lucky they still have the standing that Williams no longer is enjoying. It’s only a mere 15 years back when every rookie wanted a Williams, Ferrari or McLaren. Now I think most would want to be in the Red Bull programme.

    2. Hard to say what is more tragic/unnerving; the way McLaren tries to deny its dire situation by claiming to be absolutely top of the ladder grade a formula one beef when everyone knows they haven’t really been since Senna left, or at the latest since 2001, Or the way Williams just had zero fight in them to build on the promise of their unexpected 2014 form, and the way they just seemed content with their unavoidable decline back into the lower midfield since then. Never even looking as so much as trying to become the top dog.

      1. @mrboerns 2014 was just the engine.

        1. @flatsix well tell that to McLaren

  14. Well it just won’t look good for them. Same engine as RBR, 1s behind is no good.

    Even worse would be if STR can match them with their Honda. That would be a death blow. There would be no saving grace from there.

  15. I desperately want McLaren to do well – a team with such history and resources shouldn’t be where they were with Honda, and nor should a driver like Alonso (or Vandoorne, actually). I’m a fan of F1, not teams, and seeing where they’ve been for the last three seasons has made me miserable.

    But I can’t see them touching Red Bull this year. I think the relationship with Renault needs time to properly develop and there must surely be some compromises in the car due to the late switch from Honda. Then there’s Red Bull’s aero department, which is probably better than McLaren’s…

    So I’d expect them to end up 4th or 5th this year, maybe with a lucky podium, shrinking the gap to the big three as the season progresses but not eliminating it. Then in 2019, hopefully we could have a chance of a big five at the front.

    1. The biggest problem that I see with their new relationship with Renault is where do they think it will take them. WCC? I don’t think so, Renault might not be bothered by RB for now, but when they catch up I’m sure they will give the bare minimum to RB, look what they did with STR last season.

      And then McLaren comes along, talking about their future with Renault, but I just don’t see one in there.

      They were in the right track being a works team, unfortunately Honda happened. RB maybe realised that a little later, but they have been keeping their cards close to the chest, and played them perfectly (or so it seems) with their joker (STR), and they could be close to make a partnership with Honda work (a bit of extra pain there?).

      If they don’t attract a engine manufacturer or build their own I could almost bet that the top 4 will soon be Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault amd RBR-Honda

      1. It’s true that McLaren might never win a championship with Renault either. The way I see it, 2009-2013 was the chassis era. Red Bull were fantastic in that department, but McLaren weren’t that behind either. They had the best car in 2012 and I feel was the team that was most capable of threatening Red Bull.

        From 2014 onwards it’s been the engine/works era, and unfortunately, even a team like Red Bull has been struggling to win races and fight for the championship. As you mentioned, McLaren were on the right track by getting Honda for a partnership, but it was just a disastrous engine that was miles off the competition. They are now in damage limitation mode up until the regulations give them a better chance to challenge.

        Engine performance convergence or a massive regulation change is their only chance to start fighting again. If the next regulation change still places massive emphasis on engine performance, McLaren needs to seriously consider making their own engines, or partnering up with a capable engine partner who’s willing to set up their engine operations in Woking.

        But, I do agree that the top 4 by 2019 could easily be Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, RBR. In 2021, is when the order could be shuffled.

  16. They must finisg 4th at least, any less and it will be all their fault with no where to hide.

  17. McLaren appear to have quite a flawed management structure. This is based on how Toro Rosso have managed to be far better at integrating Honda into their race team and working closely with them to maximise their car, whilst McLaren throughout all 3 years with Honda simply left Honda to its job almost as a scape goat to hide up difficulties with aerodynamics.

    We must remember the 2014 McLaren Mercedes was a pretty poor car for McLaren’s capabilities. It only came 5th in the constructors and got just 1 podium right in the first race. Furthermore, it’s not as if they’ve had a competitive car to accurately judge the qualities of their aerodynamic package for many years. I predict McLaren will have the 5th fastest car – so that means lower end of the points and with a tight midfield that will mean many races where they won’t be in contention for points. This time McLaren won’t be able to hide and given Alonso will be having an even greater taste of motorsport outside F1, I think McLaren could be a very different team next year, without Alonso and probably a couple big players like Bouiller.

    1. Ryan Fairweather
      16th March 2018, 10:17

      The 2014 mercedes Pu in the McLaren was down on power because they used different fuel and lubricants. Thus could not compete with the Pu’s in the merc, williams and force india cars. Also Merc had a rule that said teams couldnt use engine modes that they werent using at that moment in time. If Merc werent using the top mode during a race, the others couldnt either.

  18. In 2019 Alonso will go back to the Renault works team and get another WDC

  19. Thoroughly enjoyed the Amazon series. Really insightful and involved. One example was the part where the newly arrived Zak, shares some of his wisdom about liveries, shortly after, it’s time for the “livery team” to reveal their work and it’s exactly the opposite of what Zak was saying before, but as the new guy, Zak keeps it quiet. This season we see a much cleaner livery.
    On the documentary we see some setbacks, the fire-up, the floor, testing, and we hear about people that, on presented evidence, are not up for the task, some are a bit delusional, but one thing is certain, they love McLaren.

  20. Talking about McLaren is very hard since I’m having a bad break-up with them as a former passionate fan.
    I tended to believe McLaren was the same team I fell in love since I was a little kid. The team of Senna, of Prost, Hakkinen, even a passionate, yellow helmet and giant killing Lewis back in the early days.

    It was a team I loved not because of the winning, but because of its very open acceptance of allowing their drivers to Race each other. Senna VS Prost. Hakkinen vs Coulthard. Alonso vs Lewis, Lewis vs Button. McLaren represented to me the pinnacle of motorsport yet the essence of fairness and passion- yes, the Ferrarigate was a bit hard to swallow. McLaren was a bit for me the Anti Ferrari or the Williams, teams that either followed one driver and had distinct number one and two’s, or just simply didn’t give too much value to who was behind the wheel but the car and the engineering.

    As much as people didn’t like Dennis, I liked him. I remember his press conference defending Senna after the Balestre ban. Those were passionate words. There was a racer.

    The McLaren now, at least the perception I have, its that its just a corporate shell without soul. A part of me inside still has feelings for it, but one knows the soul just isn’t there anymore.

    Ironically I see myself finding the old McLaren spirit more in its former rivals.

    I ask myself what would’ve been if Dennis got his way and put the Volkswagen World Rally Champion Manager at the helm and sacked Boullier. I don’t think McLaren would have parted ways with Honda. I also do think it would be closer to be fighting for championships this year and the coming ones.

    Any chance for Dennis to Return? For Boullier and Brown to go? To hiring Charles Leclerc and make it exciting again and rebuild ? To bring Honda back?

    What a nightmare.

    1. Agree about your thoughts on Ron Dennis. He wasn’t the most likeable character, but he was passionate and a man synonymous with McLaren. I don’t think any individual can take more credit for Mclaren’s success over the 80s and 90s than Ron Dennis. When he was ousted, I was just shocked, because I wasn’t sure whether they would ever have a person to fill his shoes.

      I feel it’s too early to judge Zak Brown and the new ethos of McLaren. The way the current regulations are setup, McLaren would be struggling no matter who was at the helm. We need to give them two or three more seasons to realise what’s really going to happen with this team.

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