By Abhishek Takle
ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Former champions McLaren left the Abu Dhabi Formula One finale celebrating their best championship finish since their time as grand prix winners, but team boss Zak Brown isn't expecting any miracles to speed up their climb back into the sport's elite.
The Woking-based outfit ended the season fourth in the overall constructors' standings, their highest finish since 2012, the year they last won a race.
A podium for Spaniard Carlos Sainz at the penultimate Brazilian Grand Prix, McLaren's first since 2014, was among the highlights.
But, now established as Formula One's best of the rest, ahead of engine supplier Renault's works team, they face their toughest challenge yet in closing the gap to Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, the sport's near untouchable leading triumvirate.
"This is clearly where we hoped we would finish but not necessarily expected to finish," Brown, officially chief executive of McLaren Racing, told Reuters in an interview at the Yas Marina track.
"Now we need to hit the reset button again and start next year so that's what we're focused on.
"The gap to the top three is still pretty big. Our goal is to close the gap."
McLaren ended the season with a total of 145 points, their first triple-digit points haul since 2014.
Red Bull, once place ahead in third, scored nearly triple the Woking-based team's total, ending the year with 417 points. Ferrari on 504 and champions Mercedes on 739 were even further out of reach.
The three teams have had the podium all to themselves at every race this year except Brazil and the rain-hit German Grand Prix.
Despite being among the most improved teams this year, Brown expects 2020 to be more a case of incremental progress than big leaps.
"I don't think we can expect miracles from one year to another," said Brown.
"If you look at Mercedes, it took them a couple of years, Red Bull, when they came in, it took them a couple of years.
"So I think this is about an upward, forward trajectory. It's all going to take some time."
Cementing fourth in the championship will in itself mark a significant achievement for McLaren next year. Their real opportunity will come in 2021.
The sport is set for a sweeping rules overhaul and, like Red Bull in 2009 and Mercedes in 2014, it's offering McLaren, who are swapping Renault power for Mercedes engines, their best chance of going from midfield points-scorers to front-runners.
The imposition of a budget cap will level the playing field in their favour, even if its full force will only begin to be felt in 2021.
Regardless, the team should have a bigger budget to spend, with their on track revival making them commercially more attractive to sponsors like British American Tobacco, who in Abu Dhabi announced an expanded sponsorship deal with McLaren.
With a quick, young driver line up of Briton Lando Norris and Spaniard Sainz, and ex-Porsche boss Andreas Seidl at the helm as managing director, Brown feels the pieces are now in place for McLaren to return to the top.
"I feel like I've got the right team on the field. I'm feeling good about the team's direction," he said.
"I think you can see teams get it right and wrong on a year to year basis so we're best keeping our head down and letting our race car do our talking for us."
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; Editing by Christian Radnedge)