Fernando Alonso says McLaren-Honda must now use Red Bull as its reference and target in the coming rounds of the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship after scoring its first top six finish of the season in Russia.
The two-time world champion put a disappointing qualifying session behind him in Sochi to make a superb start from 14th, before avoiding the lap one melee to hold down seventh for the first-half of the race and rising to sixth at the expense of the retired Max Verstappen.
Arguably the strongest performance for McLaren since its switch to Honda power in 2015, Alonso was particularly pleased to hold a position inside the top ten from start-to-finish, a stark contrast to the previous year when it frequently slipped back from bright starts.
With this in mind, Alonso feels McLaren now has a car capable of being a strong challenger at venues where power is less critical, much like Red Bull, which he says is now the clear target for McLaren going forward.
“It was great for the team to get both cars into the points. The car is coming along well, so we can hope for more points soon. But other teams are improving too, like Red Bull that fought for the podium in China, on tracks where engine power doesn't count much they can even fight with Ferrari, so they have to be our reference and aim at a similar pace.
Even so, Alonso admits qualifying remains the Achilles Heel for McLaren as rivals can 'turn up' their engines to get that single lap, a contingency that Honda has to do without for the time being.
“We need extra power for qualifying, as the others have, to be able to start further up the grid as that will avoid complications in the first few corners. We're working on it, step-by-step, but we're happy with the progress.
“We're more and more competitive from race to race so the expectations for Barcelona and Monaco are to score points again. Hopefully we can start finishing in the top five. We'll have new parts but so will everyone else, so let's see if we start using some tokens to get some more power out of the engine.”