After being narrowly pipped to both titles in 2000 by Ferrari, the aim of 2001 was to get McLaren back on top. However, the season proved to be frustrating in more ways than one. The chassis was good, but it was not developed enough to keep pace with Ferrari or new rivals Williams and also suffered from niggling aerodynamic problems; the Mercedes-Benz engines were less powerful than Williams' BMW units but less reliable than Ferrari's in-house efforts; and the team did not do a good enough job regarding the return of electronic driver aids.
Moreover, Häkkinen had his least successful season since 1997, suffering both from appalling luck and a loss of form at many races. Despite winning two Grands Prix, he elected to retire at the end of the season, and would be replaced by compatriot Kimi Räikkönen. Coulthard, by contrast, produced the best season of his career to date, winning two races early on and mounting a championship challenge to Michael Schumacher. However, McLaren lost this early parity with Ferrari and he was fortunate to keep second place in the Drivers' Championship ahead of Ferrari's number two, Rubens Barrichello.
Similarly, the team regarded themselves as fortunate to come second in the Constructors' Championship, with 102 points, ahead of the resurgent Williams team.