Daniel Ricciardo's decision to switch to McLaren from Renault (now re-branded as Alpine) for the 2021 F1 season could be a masterstroke, if the team's impressive pre-season showing holds up.
The Australian driver topped the timesheets in the morning sessions of the first two days of testing at Bahrain, with rivals teams impressed by McLaren't innovative solution to a rule change designed to limit rear downforce.
An F1 edict to limit the size of diffuser strakes at the rear of the car was creatively interpreted by McLaren's aerodynamics team, with the team instead able to increase the size of the strakes by altering the design of their floor.
They were the only team do exploit the design loophole, leaving McLaren technical director James Key pleasantly surprised.
“It’s a normal design idea. I think we are maybe a bit surprised that we are maybe the only team with that,” Key said.
“I think it’s always nice for a team to come out with an idea which is unique, you know? And credit fully goes to our aero department and the guys in the rear aero group for realising that there was an opportunity there to use the new regulations in such a way, so full credit to them.
“It’s just one feature of many in an area which changed for this year.
“It was a little bit baby steps to get us to this week and hope that we could be reliable, but fingers crossed, so far it’s been quite reasonable."
In addition to recruiting Ricciardo, McLaren also switched engine suppliers for the 2021 season, from Renault to Mercedes.
Many expected them to be one of the last teams out for testing due to the massive task of redesigning their car to fit the Mercedes power unit, but the fact they were first out on track impressed many who expected a more secretive approach.
“Rather than use the extra workload inherent in the engine change as a reason to be among the last to run, McLaren took the opposite approach, ensuring that the car was ready early so that it had plenty of time to analyse data and sort through everything before the first proper test in Bahrain,” motorsport.com's Adam Cooper said.
“The fact that the three days appeared to run smoothly suggested that the strategy had paid dividends.
“That early test debut has clearly paid dividends so far, and it puts the team in a strong position going into the first race.”
McLaren drivers optimistic after F1 testing
Ricciardo, who scored two podiums last year in his second and final season with Renault, will be hoping his move to McLaren can once again put him in the world championship frame, after toiling in the midfield since leaving Red Bull Racing.
His new teammate, British young gun Lando Norris, said he was optimistic about the pair's chances in 2021.
“It’s difficult to know what everyone’s doing but we can be confident, we have a decent car,” Norris said.
“We have things to work on for sure, not everything’s perfect, but I’m happy and excited to get started.
“I think it’s gone well. I want to say we’re maybe a little more confident than we were last year.
“In terms of starting off with a good step and on the right foot, I think we’ve managed to do that and we have some good things to work on when we come back in two weeks.”
McLaren earned praise from reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, as well as former F1 driver Romain Grosjean, with the team's steady running across three days impressing many.
"Red bull looks strong. Mercedes will be there for race 1," Grosjean wrote on Twitter.
"Alpha Tauri may be a good surprise. McLaren and Aston (Martin) pretty good. Ferrari with Alpine?
"Many questions, answers during the first quali of the season as usual."
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