McLaren playing catch-up in race to gatecrash Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen title battle

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McLaren playing catch-up in race to gatecrash Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen title battle - MCLAREN
McLaren playing catch-up in race to gatecrash Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen title battle - MCLAREN

It was almost imperceptible, but you could detect just a hint of irritation from McLaren’s drivers at a team event in Woking last week when asked about the battle for Formula One supremacy between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

“It’s good,” Daniel Ricciardo acknowledged, smiling. “It would be even better if it was more than just those two.” Ricciardo’s team-mate, Lando Norris, agreed, adding pointedly that there was some half-decent racing a little further down the grid if anyone could be bothered to look. “I think when you watch a race for the win it’s always more interesting,” Norris conceded. “But if you forget the top three sometimes, or top four, there would be an incredible battle for the win quite often.”

Being affable blokes, both went on to give thoughtful observations on a title battle which has F1 fans riveted. But they were right to be a little annoyed. McLaren are not doing so badly themselves these days; third in the constructors’ championship last season and sitting third in this one. They are nearly back in that title conversation. Nearly, but not quite.

The event in Woking was to unveil a special one-off “retro” livery for the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix, in conjunction with partner Gulf Oil. They know the gulf that really matters, though, is the one between themselves and the sport’s front-runners. McLaren have the drivers. Norris and Ricciardo combine British youth and potential with Antipodean experience and proven speed. And the intra-team battle this term has been fascinating; Ricciardo, who arrived from Renault over the winter, beating Norris for the first time in Barcelona last weekend.

Now they just need the car.

Australian Ricciardo says he is feeling more and more comfortable with the Mercedes-powered MCL35M. “It’s been kind of a funny narrative with me being the 10-year veteran, but like the ‘rookie’ in the team,” he said. “Barcelona was certainly better for me. Even in the race I had to stay on my toes the whole way through. Whether it was Checo [Red Bull’s Sergio Perez] or Carlos [Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz]. In defending, obviously you push the car.

“Having that pressure on me and forcing myself to really try to get the most out of it, and not care too much about the tyres, was probably a good thing. I’ll try to carry that into Monaco. Plus, I’ve already had my Q1 ‘experience’ this year [exiting in the first qualifying knockout session in Portugal], so I’m not going to do that again!” Ricciardo, who trails his younger team-mate by 17 points in the standings, added that it would be “the second half of the year before the car feels completely familiar to me, as opposed to doing it on instinct and subconscious”.

It is a great dynamic with Norris, though, who looks increasingly assured in only his third season in the sport. “For sure his speed has been impressive,” Ricciardo observed generously of his 21 year-old team-mate. “And I guess we’ll have to ask him the question, but I feel like he has probably taken a step up this year....” Then, with a grin: “Don’t say you’ve got worse because that will make me look bad!”

Can McLaren finally win a race again this year? It is coming up for nine years since Jenson Button won at Interlagos. Far too long for a team of their stature. Can they make the most of the technical regulation changes to challenge next season?

One thing is for sure, McLaren have their work cut out in Monaco this weekend. Their performance in the low-speed third sector in Barcelona, traditionally a bellwether for form in Monaco, was not standout.

“We’ve probably got our work cut out," agreed Ricciardo, who lives in Monaco and admitted he was inordinately excited to be returning to the Principality after it fell victim to Covid last year. "But knowing that a bit in advance, we can start to think about maybe some different set-up ideas or some things to help us out in Monaco. So we’ll see."

Norris was more bullish: “The difference between Monaco and sector three in Spain is we obviously run the set-up very differently in Spain. It is a lot more [geared] to sectors one and two with the high-speed corners. That’s the opposite of Monaco where it’s mostly low speed. But you also run [the car] a lot softer because of the bumps and everything like that. So I think the whole characteristic of the car will change a lot. So it’s quite unexplored territory for this car.”

For now, McLaren are probably still relying on mistakes from their rivals. The gap is slowly closing, but there is still a sizeable gulf. As McLaren’s chief executive, Zak Brown admitted, when he was asked about the Max v Lewis show: “I think it’s great. Lewis has had a pretty easy ride of it apart from that one year with Nico [Rosberg]. So I think it’s a great rivalry. And having those two guys go at it, hopefully at some point over the course of a year might create some opportunity for us because I think it is just a matter of time until they are both determined not to let up into Turn One, and neither comes out.”

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