RACE DEBRIEF

    McLaren finished an excellent fourth in the constructors' championship in 2019, giving them the 'best of the rest' title ahead of engine supplier Renault's factory team. They also looked pretty handy at pre-season testing back in February – but a lot has happened since then. Let's take a look at where the Woking team stand before the long-delayed 2020 season kicks off next weekend.

    How did they look at winter testing?

    It was a solid pre-season for McLaren in isolation, as the team look to build on an impressive 2019 that saw them finish comfortably best of the rest in fourth in the constructors’ championship. But performance is relative, and some rivals appeared to make bigger gains over the winter.

    The car was a reliable one, with over 800 laps completed over the six days of testing, meaning only Mercedes and Ferrari clocked up more mileage. And it certainly wasn’t slow, with the long run pace looking particularly impressive, while the team never showed their hand on the softest tyre compound.

    That leaves the question mark over how quick the car is when you take all the fuel out and stick on a set of softs for a qualifying lap, because Racing Point similarly didn’t show what they can do. Renault did reveal a bit more, and it appears to leave those three in a group of their own at the front of the midfield.

    Carlos Sainz at winter testing: McLaren 'much quicker' in all areas

    What’s happened since then?

    McLaren have been one of the busier teams during the shutdown, with changes happening on a number of fronts.

    They were first to announce they would be furloughing staff in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but were part of Project Pitlane as teams used their unique skills to respond to a UK Government call for help addressing the gap in medical equipment.

    Then came news of driver movement, as Carlos Sainz was signed by Ferrari to replace Sebastian Vettel in 2021, and McLaren impressively secured Daniel Ricciardo as his replacement. Within the announcements of those moves, it was also confirmed that Lando Norris will be staying for a third year with the team in 2021.

    READ MORE: Why Ricciardo has gambled his future on McLaren – rather than staying at Renault

    After that, the team were in the headlines for wider issues as the McLaren Group looks to raise funds having been hit hard by the pandemic, and in turn the F1 team anounced there would be some redundancies in preparation for the budget cap next season. There has also been talk of a stake in the F1 team being sold to help them achieve the budget to run at the upper level of the cap, and therefore have the best chance to fight for wins and titles in future.

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    Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris will be racing together for McLaren in 2021

    What have the drivers been up to in the break?

    Norris has been one of the bigger stars of the shutdown courtesy of his willingness to get involved with so much online streaming and fundraising. He was first to commit to Esports events, and attempted – with varying degrees of success – to connect to the majority of the Virtual Grand Prix series races.

    But the youngster was also involved in controversy when he performed well in IndyCar’s Esports attempts, winning at COTA before being taken out of the finale at Indianapolis.

    Sainz couldn’t escape the limelight either given the interest surrounding his future as he was named as a Ferrari driver from 2021 onwards, but he has also been trying his hand at Esports alongside training and fundraising for the Covid-19 response.

    ANALYSIS: Why Ferrari chose Sainz – and why he shouldn't be cast as Leclerc's wingman

    Although McLaren haven’t carried out a test with Formula 1 machinery ahead of Austria, both drivers did get time behind the wheel of a Formula 3 car courtesy of Carlin – a junior team that they have both raced for in the past – at Silverstone, experiencing both wet and dry conditions.

    How are they looking for Austria?

    Despite so much going on over the past three months, McLaren will be quietly confident ahead of the resumption of racing. The 2020 car certainly appears to be right in the fight at the front of the midfield once again, and the performances of both drivers last year was a key part of the team’s success.

    While Racing Point has to get used to a new car concept and Renault a new driver line-up featuring Esteban Ocon, McLaren’s continuity and stability could prove to be their biggest strength in the opening races.

    As far as history goes, Norris’ sixth place and Sainz’s drive from P19 on the grid to finish eighth in Austria last season – with no Safety Car and no retirements – also bodes well for the first two rounds at the Red Bull Ring.

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    Lando Norris finished a superb sixth at last year's Austrian Grand Prix

    What will their target be for the season?

    Before the delay to the season, McLaren would have probably hoped to have closed the gap slightly to the top three, regardless of what the rest of the midfield achieved, but the break is likely to play more into the hands of the bigger teams with the resources to deal with the unexpected.

    Still, what won’t change is the overall aim of finishing fourth in the constructors’ championship once again, and McLaren know they have a real fight on their hands with the likes of Renault and Racing Point.

    It doesn’t look like being anywhere near as comfortable as last season, but best of the rest has to be McLaren’s target and pre-season showed them to have a reliable car that should aid their cause. They’ll be asking for more of the same from Sainz after an extremely impressive 2019, and any development from Norris in his second season will only make the team stronger.

    READ MORE: Every Formula 1 team’s biggest challenge in 2020