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ANALYSIS: McLaren hit the reset button in a bid to revive their F1 hopes
McLaren are enduring their worst start to a Formula 1 campaign since 2017, the iconic British team glued to the bottom of the constructors’ standings without a single point to their hallowed name.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock to see Technical Director James Key leave the team, as part of a wider design-office restructure at Woking.
READ MORE: James Key parts ways with McLaren as team announce technical restructure
However, McLaren have made clear this is a not a reactive move but rather the result of months of evaluation of the technical team following a sustained period of decline.
Having impressed with P3 in the constructors’ championship in 2020, a year after Key joined from Toro Rosso to replace Tim Goss as tech chief and their best result for eight years, McLaren slipped to P4 the following season.
They were then out-developed by Alpine last year to end the year fifth. And while 10th and last in the constructors’ championship doesn’t accurately reflect the current pace of the car, our data suggests they are only sixth-quickest at best.
A late decision to change the development direction of the MCL60 meant the 2023 challenger McLaren launched was a major compromise. The first major upgrade will come for round four in Baku, with a series of other packages coming off the production line as the season goes on.
With that in mind, a difficult start to the campaign was anticipated – though I suspect they wouldn’t have expected to be pointless (from a scoring perspective). A difficult start, then, for Andreas Stella’s reign as Team Principal.
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However, it has emerged that behind the scenes, Stella was doing a lot of work to evaluate the team’s technical structure. Brown admitted “it has been clear to me for some time that our technical development has not moved at a quick enough pace”.
So, after years of deteriorating performance, parting ways with Key and giving a new structure – which includes the intriguing hire of David Sanchez from Ferrari – a chance to thrive was a natural pathway for Brown to pursue.
Doing so now gives the new structure – which will feature an executive technical committee, spearheaded by three senior figures, Peter Prodromou (Aerodynamics), Sanchez (Car Concept and Performance) and Neil Houldey (Engineering and Design), rather than a sole chief technical lead – time to bed in before a series of key infrastructure projects including a new simulator and wind tunnel come online.
The team have been making do with Toyota’s wind tunnel in Germany for around a decade. This is not only a costly option, but it takes time to logistically transport parts back and forth between the two countries. And while the tunnel remains one of the high-end options, many of their rivals have more state-of-the-art operations.
READ MORE: ‘We were just very unlucky’ – Norris frustrated after McLaren team mate Piastri’s debris wrecks his Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
The wind tunnel is currently being calibrated, a process that takes several months before development work for the car can take place. If all goes to plan, it should be in use this summer – but because of long lead times in F1, work done in there is unlikely to have an impact on a McLaren until late 2024 at the earliest.
This is not to say that McLaren will be in a holding pattern until then. The McLaren Technology Centre remains a fine Formula 1 facility, while the team continues to recruit technical staff at various levels across the racing team. And they will continue to work on the current package to get the most out of it and learn for the future.
Yes, the start to the season has been miserable. But Saudi Arabia was a step forward. The team made it into Q3, the final part of qualifying, for the first time in 2023, through rookie Oscar Piastri. And while their race was effectively over before it had even started following contact for Piastri with Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris then hitting that debris which forced both into the pits and thus out of contention, the team did get both cars to the finish to deliver valuable learnings.
Digging into the qualifying pace, McLaren are sixth-best, putting them in the mix for regular Q3s at this stage of the season. Only Aston Martin and Mercedes were stronger than them in the medium-speed turns at Jeddah and they were second overall in the high-speed corners, only a fraction behind Aston Martin.
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But they were nowhere on the straights, our data suggesting the team were two seconds adrift of Red Bull over one lap – the worst deficit of any team on the grid – and that hurt them in a big way at Jeddah, billed as the world’s fastest street circuit.
The margins, though, are small courtesy of a tightly-packed midfield. And that’s why Stella remains positive that their season can be rescued.
“We need to work hard to improve the car,” he says. “We see that the points are not very far in terms of pace. This year racing keeps being quite tight, from [a] field spread point of view. This is an opportunity, but we only capitalise on this opportunity if we improve the car.”
Aston Martin have proved that big jumps up the field are possible. The billionaire Lawrence Stroll-run team were seventh overall last year but now have the second fastest car on merit.
While it will be irritating for McLaren that this means Stroll has leapfrogged them, such a move up the field (the size of which has not been seen since Brawn GP in 2009) proves what is possible for McLaren if they get their concept right.
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“The gaps [between teams] apart from Red Bull have shrunk down,” says Stella. “So if you make a jump, you can compete for good points. I think Aston, they seem to have identified the right concepts on the car – and pursued those concepts.
“It shows that this is possible and it just reiterates the fundamental message of McLaren – we need to work hard to keep developing the car. As we see in development, in the background, it is positive, it is alive in development. We need to pursue this direction and capitalise on it.”
In Norris, McLaren know they have a potential world champion on their hands, the Briton having joined the family in 2017, but Piastri – who they put so much faith in after luring him away from Alpine – is more of an unknown quantity in F1 despite his impressive success in junior formulae. The Australian made what Stella described as “really strong progress” in Jeddah – and Stella wants to see that trend continue.
“For me it's going steady progress session by session,” he adds. “But if you look back, already in FP1 he was a little bit more competitive than Bahrain. Then FP2 [he was] closer, then FP3 pretty much a match for Lando, capitalising in qualifying, and then very strong in the race. For me, I see more the sense of constant progression, which is ultimately the plan that we have with Oscar.”
READ MORE: McLaren Team Principal Stella expecting Piastri to become ‘one of the best drivers on the grid’
As Melbourne’s Albert Park is similar to Jeddah in terms of grip level of the asphalt and corner types, Stella reckons McLaren should be able to “challenge for Q3 and challenge for good points”. That’ll be music to the ears of Piastri as he bids to score his first F1 points on home soil – and music to the ears of McLaren’s loyal fanbase.
That’s the short-term focus for McLaren. Brown will then hope the significant changes he’s supported can pay dividends as quickly as possible to not just halt their decline but set them back on a path towards the front of the grid. It’s a mammoth task – and one which will take several years – but you’ve got to start somewhere…
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