As champagne corks popped in McLaren's motorhome on Sunday evening, team principal Andrea Stella was keen to manage expectations. Speaking to members of the media after Lando Norris' second-place finish at the British Grand Prix, he stressed that a number of factors had contributed to the team's best result since Daniel Ricciardo's shock victory at Monza two years ago. Validation of the apparent step forward made at Silverstone, he said, would only come if a similar level of performance could be achieved at a different circuit in less favourable conditions.
But there was no hiding a genuine sense of optimism at McLaren over the weekend -- something that has been notably absent since the launch of its car in mid-February. Back then, the team was brutally honest about its missed performance targets over the winter, which became increasingly apparent when the MCL60 hit the track for the first time in pre-season testing in Bahrain.
To make matters worse, rival team Aston Martin started the year with a car capable of fighting for podiums, proving that McLaren's long-held ambition of bridging the gap between the midfield and F1's front runners was entirely possible with the right people making the right decisions. Five turbulent months later, during which technical director James Key left the team, it's possible McLaren has made a similar step forward.
But while the champagne is no longer on ice, it remains to be seen if McLaren can double down on its recent progress and return its famous name to the front of the F1 grid more permanently.
Why was McLaren so quick at Silverstone?
McLaren has undoubtedly made a step forward with its latest round of car upgrades, the first which debuted on Lando Norris' car in Austria and secured fourth place behind the two Red Bulls and Charles Leclerc's Ferrari. The package included a "fully-revised" floor that had been designed to work in tandem with changes to the car's sidepods, which now feature a clear resemblance to the ones on the championship-leading Red Bull.
Ultimately, the upgrades were aimed at improving the aerodynamic efficiency of the car -- providing more downforce in the corners with minimal drag on the straights -- and according to GPS data the MCL60 is now among the fastest cars on the grid in high-speed corners. Both the Red Bull Ring, where the new parts debuted, and Silverstone, where they were complimented by a new front wing and rear bake duct updates, feature a high concentration of fast corners.
What's more, even before the most recent updates, this year's McLaren excelled in fast corners, especially when combined with cool conditions -- see Lando Norris' third-place grid position at the Circuit de Catalunya on an unusually damp qualifying day in Spain. One problem with the MCL60, however, has been its tendency to overheat its tyres when laden with fuel, meaning it frequently drops back down the order in races.
Clearly that wasn't the case in Silverstone, where Norris qualified and finished second while teammate Oscar Piastri looked set for third until an unfortunately timed safety car dropped him to fourth. However, the relatively cool conditions of the British summer undoubtedly helped McLaren as well as an unusual quirk of the Silverstone circuit, which means some of its fastest corners have a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality between qualifying and the race.
"The indications from the race are clearly quite encouraging," Stella said on Sunday evening. "We were surprised ourselves in the first stint that we were able to keep our competitors, Ferrari and Mercedes, behind. We thought they would be a problem for us in terms of pace, so I think we have to acknowledge that the improvement seems to be genuine, even in terms of race pace.
"However, as I keep reminding, we are at a circuit with high-speed corners, and actually here in Silverstone some of the high-speed corners appear only in the race because they are flat-out in qualifying, so again it gives a bit of premium if you are competitive in high-speed, and that premium is more evident in the race than in qualifying.
"At the same time, it was also cold conditions, so I keep being prudent that maybe we are flattering a bit the situation thanks to these conditions. Conditions like today, they do help because they don't overheat the tyres, which is also something on which we have some work to do.
"But I think it's fair to acknowledge that the car now seems to be competitive in race conditions as well."
Norris' assessment of the car that, at the last two races, has secured 30 of his 42 points this season, suggested that the performances in Austria and Great Britain had flattered to deceive.
"These tracks have allowed us to look after the tyres well. We're very, very competitive in high-speed [corners]. We're almost on par with what Red Bull could achieve in some places and actually, I would say towards the medium-speed like Turn 15 here, Stowe, I would say we're close to being the best car on the grid.
"Super, super high-speed like Turn 9 [Copse], maybe not quite so much but that was in qualifying and then when we come to the race, we definitely maintain our performance when others seem to take a bit of a hit. And in doing so we can actually look after the tyres pretty well, especially when there's no thermal limitation within the tyre like today.
"But we do have a poor car -- and I say poor, I would say pretty terrible -- in the slow-speed corners, extremely difficult to drive. I feel we're getting excited, and I accept that, but we're going to go to a couple of tracks coming up where I'm sure people are going to be saying, 'What have you done now? How has it got so bad all of a sudden?!'
"So, we've improved a lot of things: tyre degradation, there's always little things you try and do with tyre cooling but nothing big from that side. It's just this track's allowed us to look after the tyres nicely, keep them in a good condition. Simple as that. So a lot of it is track-specific.
"I don't want to get too excited. Good things have come from the upgrade but there's still plenty of things where we are miles away from, say, competing in certain places with a Mercedes, and as a whole package competing even with a Red Bull. So a lot more work to be done from both of those areas."
Stella said the next round at the Hungaroring, a circuit with very few straights and a combination of medium- and low-speed corners, would either provide a reality check for McLaren's progress.
"In a way, we are looking forward to Hungary to check more comprehensively where we really are," Stella added. "As you say, there is not as much high-speed, if anything it is a low- and medium-speed dominated track and also you can have hot conditions, which again is another testing territory for us. We will see."
The final part of McLaren's latest update package is due to arrive on the car in Hungary, aimed at combatting the tyre overheating issues the car has suffered at races this year.
Can McLaren continue to make progress?
Verstappen's run of six victories from the last six races suggests no other team is about to trouble Red Bull at the very front of the grid, but at the same six races five different drivers have finished in second place behind the runaway championship leader. Norris secured the increasingly coveted best-of-the-rest achievement in Silverstone, following on from Charles Leclerc in Austria, Fernando Alonso in Canada, Lewis Hamilton in Spain, Alonso again in Monaco and Verstappen's teammate Sergio Perez in Miami.
The changing faces on the second and third steps of the podium this year underlines just how tight the battle is between Mercedes, Aston Martin and Ferrari, with McLaren and Alpine contending for silverware on occasion. At Silverstone, the qualifying margin between Norris in second place on the grid and Hamilton in seventh was just 0.250s, proving just how small the gap is between a podium place and a lower-top ten finishing position.
With regularity, teams that have brought an upgrade package to an event have moved up that pack while teams that are waiting on their next improvement have slipped down. It has put extra emphasis on using wind tunnel time wisely under F1's restrictions, which offer teams further down the order more aerodynamic testing capability than those at the top, and puts an emphasis on the speed of manufacturing new parts and bringing them to the track.
"Why it is exciting to see the McLaren bounceback is that you can do that within a season," Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said on Sunday evening. "Fair enough, they had much more wind tunnel time [than Mercedes and Ferrari], but in any case, coming with upgrades which completely changed the performance of the car.
"We are not talking about two tenths up and down, but we are talking about a second. And that's good for the sport, that if you do the right things and put things together, as we've seen with the Aston Martin year-to-year and now we've seen it with the McLaren during the year, you can move up the grid."
It's also clear that teams that have taken design inspiration from Red Bull, notably Aston Martin and McLaren, have unlocked significant amounts of performance. McLaren has made no secret that its latest upgrades were influenced by the championship-leading car, but it's also important to point out that it's not as simple as copying another team's homework.
"Every team takes inspiration from any other team," Stella said. "Teams are equipped to try and absorb IP from looking at the photos, from looking at the cars on display [in the pit lane] on Friday.
"So you do take inspiration from the other cars, but taking inspiration or even looking at the photo doesn't mean that you copy the geometry, you don't install it in your CFD run it in the computer simulation or in the wind tunnel, and the car lights up in terms of downforce.
"Normally what happens is the performance goes down [initially], because your car is already optimised around what you have done up until that point. Somehow, the key element is understanding that some concepts have more potential that will allow you to develop faster and for longer."
Initially, McLaren was hoping its latest design direction would set it on a path to fight with the top teams by the end of the season, so the performance seen in Silverstone came earlier than expected. Stella says the next step will be to ensure the same level of performance is accessible at all types of track and then use the latest upgrades as a platform to move further up the grid.
"Once we started to develop the car, we saw that the rate of development meant our reasonable expectation was that by the end of the season we could have fought with the four quickest teams," Stella said. "That's what we thought was possible, so it is in a way a bit of a surprise that we find ourselves in this position now, but we will see how things unfold later.
"Our expectation is for McLaren to compete for podiums next season, and for victories in the following season. This is the long-term vision, but you don't deliver based on visions, you deliver based on the facts that you actually bring to the car and that's our focus."