Can McLaren finish third again in 2021? Zak Brown assesses their key rivals

2021 F1 season

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McLaren prevailed in a closely-fought fight for third place in the constructors championship in 2020, achieving their best finishing position for eight years.

Can they repeat it in 2021? McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown predicts the midfield will again be very close, with as many as five teams in the fight for third place.

“I think third to seventh place is a flip of a coin,” he told RaceFans in an exclusive interview.

McLaren ended last season just seven points ahead of Racing Point, with Renault a further 14 behind. Those teams will change names to Aston Martin and Alpine respectively this season. Brown expects they will be McLaren’s closest rivals for third place, along with Ferrari and AlphaTauri.

“Any of those third-through-seventh-placed teams took a turn at being the third fastest at some point last year,” he explained. “So that’s how tight it is.

Brown says McLaren has the strongest line-up of its rivals
“Every team is capable of being third quickest and it’s about driver line-up consistency, putting it all together. I think you’ve got to assume that, third to seventh, anyone can do it.”

Brown said McLaren’s pairing of Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris exploited weaknesses in rivals’ driver line-up’s last year.

“I think with Ferrari’s resources and driver line-up, if you look at where [Charles] Leclerc finished in the championship, if they would have had more consistency out of their second driver and some more pace, I don’t think they would have finished sixth in the championship. So therefore, are they a threat for third with their resources? Absolutely.”

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Brown saw the same weakness in Racing Point, who McLaren overtook for third place at the final round.

“I think Racing Point was the third-quickest car most of the year,” he said. “But again, you didn’t have two drivers driving at the same level all the time.”

Leclerc showed Ferrari’s true level in 2020, Brown believes
Brown considers the team potentially even more competitive following its rebranding as Aston Martin and hiring of Sebastian Vettel following his departure from Ferrari.

“Vettel is a four-time world champion who clearly has it in him. Ferrari wasn’t a great environment for him, for whatever reason, and so you have to assume [that] get into an environment he’s happy with [and] he’s fully capable of taking over where Checo [Perez] left off.

“Given the 2021 car doesn’t deviate much from the 2020 car, you’d have to say that’s probably still the third-quickest car. So therefore, I don’t think you can rule them out for third.”

Renault, now Alpine, has also acquired a multiple world champion as Fernando Alonso has replaced Daniel Ricciardo.

“Renault took turns being third quickest,” said Brown. “I think Fernando Alonso is as fast as he ever has been. So I think he’ll be right at the top.

“While [Esteban] Ocon clearly struggled the first half of the year, you’ve got to say that in the second half of the year and the last quarter of the year he was right there with Daniel. So I think that’s a tough driver line-up, with a team that’s moving forward, so you can’t rule them out for third.”

Although AlphaTauri finished last year with only slightly more than half McLaren’s points total, Brown also sees them as potential contenders in 2021.

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“I think you’ve got to put AlphaTauri in there. They won a race, they lacked some driver consistency. I don’t know much about [Yuki Tsunoda], but from what I read, he seems to be extremely good. [Pierre] Gasly has always been good in the AlphaTauri, so I don’t think you can rule them out.”

Fernando Alonso, Renault, Yas Marina, 2020
Ex-McLaren driver Alonso will be a threat at Alpine, says Brown
“Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams, while I expect them to close the gap, they do seem to be a little bit further back,” he added. “So I think that third to seventh, I think you could see us finish as it was this year, I think you could see it flip to somewhere in between. And that’s exciting.”

Ricciardo will join McLaren in place of Ferrari-bound Sainz this year. “I like our collective driver line-up the most of all the driver line-ups,” said Brown. “But I don’t think there’s a tenth or two between those cars and therefore I think it’s going to be a hell of a battle between third and seventh.”

“The reason we finished third in the championship this year is a great team effort, good car, et cetera,” he added. “But you have to [credit] the fact that we’ve got two drivers that were so close to each other made a difference.”

McLaren are also switching to Mercedes power this year, forcing the team to spend chassis tokens on accommodating the new power unit rather than pure development. “We’ve got the benefit of the Mercedes engine but that comes to the detriment of having to use our our tokens,” Brown acknowledged, “so does that neutralise itself in the short term? I don’t know. We’ll find out.

“So therefore, I think we’ve got a shot. But we weren’t the third quickest car. We were the fourth quickest car.”

Drivers, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
2021 F1 drivers and teams
However Brown also has his eye on the true benchmark of the team’s performance: Its gap to Mercedes, which narrowed during 2020.

“Where you finish in the constructors championship is one measurement,” he said. “It’s a big measurement. But the ultimate measurement is lap time.

“We were closer to Mercedes this year than we were last year. But still far off. We were closer, but we could have finished fifth in the championship. So we’re sitting here going, ‘we’ve had a great year’ and we have; third and closer to Mercedes. But would we be as happy if we were fifth and closer to Mercedes?

“One could argue our race car could have been just as fast and we could have finished fifth instead of third because of good luck or bad luck. So those are the two data points: Constructors championship, and race pace and qualifying pace to whoever is winning. And we closed the gap, but the gap is still huge.”

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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19 comments on “Can McLaren finish third again in 2021? Zak Brown assesses their key rivals”

  1. Well, I think Zak tells it as it is. They will have quite the job cut out for them to beat Aston, Alpine and Ferrari to that third spot. I would expect it might become harder. But it depends a lot on execution and taking the chances you get. So they can.

    Surely this will be as close as the fans would want the whole grid to be!

    1. @bascb

      I agree. They’re going to have their hands full to defend that third position. With the limited development for next season, Aston Martin will probably be the 3rd fastest car again, but with one of the weaker midfield driver line-ups, it should keep them all in play.

      It’s really hard to predict next year’s midfield battle, but if I had to guess, Mclaren would probably start the season as 6th fastest, but improve to 4th fastest by the end of the season. I don’t think they’ll finish higher than P5 in the WCC though. The integration with Mercedes engine will have some teething issues, and up until they optimise the entire package, they won’t be as formidable in the midfield battle.

      Another guess is that Ferrari will improve massively and I expect them to be favourites to take the fight to Aston Martin next season. With their improved driver line up, I think they have a realistic shot at P3 in the WCC.

      Alpine are a bit of an unknown. Their performance is highly inconsistent during the season, and it remains to be seen how quickly Alonso can get on form. If I had to guess, I would say the battle for P5 is between Alpine and Mclaren.

      I don’t see Toro Rosso finishing higher than any of the other midfield teams. I think P7 is the best they can pull off this season.

  2. I like Zak, he seems to give very honest responses to questions. His analysis of the field is pretty much spot-on and whenever he talks, he keeps corporate dogma to a minimum and gives a fair and balanced perspective.

    All the teams have a very interesting few years ahead, changes in names and driver line-ups, changes to suppliers, changes to constructors rankings – and in 2022 there’s a change to *everything* and ANY team could be at the top. Mercedes could continue their dominance, but they have the most to lose as they are already at the top.

    McLaren have a history of innovation and development, the team who find the best innovations for next year will be the ones who should be able to pull out a lead. It’s not really just about power units, until 2020 Mercedes powered cars bookended the the field, I would love to see McLaren in the hunt for the championship in 2022. I wonder which team will navigate the loopholes the best?

    I wouldn’t write off 2021 as a rerun of 2020. Sure Mercedes are ahead, but Max wasn’t not that far behind (he took the battle for 2nd place in WDC to the very last race), and hopefully Perez will shine in that car. The mix-ups to driver lineups might give the teams the boost they need to re-order what was already a very close field.

    1. Yes, indeed, absolutely a realistic comment from him, you know toto wolff and such keep talking the competition up beyond reasonable, so if zak were like him he’d have talked up williams etc., instead he said clearly he expects them to still be behind but it’ll be a battle with the others, which I find true.

      1. I love Toto, but he does have a habit of making Mercedes sound like the underdog compared to the sheer might of Red Bull and Ferrari!

    2. I suspect McLaren, Alpine, Williams, Ferrari, Merc and Red Bull to be the ones that find the most substantial loopholes. McLaren, I especially think have already found something because the other teams wanted some changes and clarifications which was heavily defended by McLaren. Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull have the resources and have shown in recent times they’ll find something, also Ferrari will probably write off next year to focus on 2022, so I’d be surprised if they don’t find any substantial loopholes. Williams and Alpine as well are focusing immediately on 2022 and have a history in the past (if it counts for anything now) of doing this. Aston Martin, Haas and Alpha Tauri are just B-Teams that have shown they aren’t the greatest at interpreting technical rules bar loopholes on what they can take (especially Aston Martin now who failed to make their own car, develop it or even set it up properly), and I have little faith in Sauber finding something.

  3. Even if Mclaren doesn’t have the outright third-fastest car, they have an advantage in driver pairing over at least Aston Martin and Alpine, I reckon.

    1. Hm, I think you might be right there @jerejj, but there probably is not that much between them. Ricciardo might be almost as good as Alonso, and yeah Norris did better than Ocon last year. Stroll was doing a decent job at RP, but the big question is whether Vettel will be able to regain his confidence and speed fast enough to be the team leader and matter on track. But Aston will have the better car, I’d expect. At least at the start of the year.

      Overall, a good battle to look forward to.

  4. Perhaps they had no choice because of contractual obligations, but the break up of the Sainz Norris partnership may harm McLaren this coming year. They pushed one another but shared data and ethos and youth. I am sure that level of partnership will be more difficult with Riccardo. Age, temperament and experience will inevitably change the nature of the pairing and it will be interesting to see if it develops into a partnership. That will largely depend on Riccardo who will be the newcomer and the old hand and of a different generation to Norris who is a similar karting generation with Leclerc, Russel, Verstappen, Ocon.

    Riccardo is now in his 30s and is of the Hamilton, Vettel generation. These things do matter in competitive relationships.

    At least the gap is not to the Alonso (40 in mid season) and Raikonnen (well into his 40s) generation. That must are really difficult for a 20-something year old.

  5. Very candid responses from Zak Brown. Good speaker. Lap time indeed is an important comparative benchmark.

  6. Zak is rebuilding the team.

  7. Mercedes
    Red Bull
    Ferrari/Mclaren Mercedes/Aston Mercedes
    Renault
    Alpha Tauri
    Haas / Williams
    Alfa Romeo

    HAM
    VER
    BOT
    PER
    RIC
    LEC
    ALO
    NOR
    SAI
    VET

    1. Not a bad shout but you underestimate Sainz. He’ll be around 6th place again…..

  8. One of the highlights of the last few seasons has been the battle of the midfield teams and I expect this year to be a cracker in that regard.

    Sure the Merc’s and Red Bull might be off in the distance, but that’s been pretty much the same for almost every season for decades in one form or another.

    As long as there’s some fierce competition between the midfield for this season, I’ll be happy whilst we await 2022.

  9. McLaren has the right guy in Ricciardo. I’m confident he’ll beat Norris. He’s certainly better than Sainz.

    Going to Mercedes power though means they’ll never be able to challenge the works team.

  10. “But you have to [credit] the fact that we’ve got two drivers that were so close to each other made a difference.”

    Not just that they were close performance wise, but they were both team players. They didn’t battle with each other and each let the other past without argument in order to increase the team’s overall chances when necessary.

  11. I like how he makes it out like it’s all about drivers. Even if it would be good PR talk, it’s almost close to reality and that’s frankly very exciting and ideally how F1 should be.

    His point is on driver pairings and feels he has perhaps the strongest, and that’s quite some measure of Norris when Ricciardo is already a known quantity.

    Again, the fight for 3rd will be undoubtedly be the highlight of the year as it was last. Just the Vettel – Alonso battle will be something.

  12. Zak Brown always comes across well in interviews. No PR nonsense, says it how it is with a great insight into the sport

  13. I think they’ll come 5th this year.
    Merc is untouchable, Red Bull is leagues ahead of McLaren, and Racing Point/Aston Martin are just a better team at the moment. I think Ferrari will also have got their act back together for 2021 and will overtake McLaren.

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