How McLaren Went From Backmarkers to Podiums
McLarens 2020 campaign has been remarkable for a team that frequently fought at the back only a few years ago, and here's why.
The McLaren Formula One Team. The team that dominated the late 80s and early 90s allowing Senna to win his three championships aswell as treating the world to an iconic teammate rivalry. They rank as the third most successful team in the history of the sport with 8 championships and 182 victories however their last victory in Formula 1 was the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix: that’s 401 weeks or 2807 days ago. For a team that prides themselves on being the best, this is far from the ideal for the Woking based team. From 2013 onwards it’s been an extremely difficult time for McLaren with their lowest point being the 2015 season where they scored a measly 27 points. With the departure of Fernando Alonso at the end of 2018, the team underwent a complete managerial and strategic shift with the arrival of names such as Andreas Seidl and James Key. And based on how the 2020 season is going so far, I think it’s fair to say they are on their way back to the top.
So, in order to see how far McLaren have come, we need to really look back and see what went wrong in the first place. The story of McLaren’s decline starts back in late 2013 and into early 2014 when the politics within the team began to hinder their results on track. The McLaren shareholders led by Ron Dennis ousted Martin Whitmarsh as CEO of McLaren Racing, and was replaced by Dennis himself. The drivers at the time - Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen - were inevitably affected by the politics and struggled to perform finishing P8 and P11 in the 2014 season. I think most people can agree that this was the moment McLaren began to slip away from contention, but it was really the 2015 season that pushed them even further back.
As I said earlier, the lowest point of McLarens decline was the 2015 season, and this is for a few reasons. Firstly, they decided to switch from Mercedes to Honda engines which seemed quite a risky decision seeing as Honda hadn’t supplied anyone in F1 since 2008 when Honda was an actual team. This brought great publicity to McLaren because of their brilliant history working with Honda however in reality there wasn’t much logic behind it. Honda hadn’t built any turbo hybrid engines for Formula 1, and in an era where the engine is king, this proved to be an insurmountable issue.
The choice to use Honda engines was a complete failure. They proved to lack massive amounts of horsepower on the straights aswell as being incredibly unreliable. And with the arrival of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso for the 2015 season, politics once again played a massive role in the team. Not to mention that in late 2016, Ron Dennis was then stabbed in the back by the shareholders giving way to the familiar face of Zak Brown.
With the departure of Button at the end of 2016, Alonso felt that the team should focus on him as number one driver and not rookie Stoffel Vandoorne. And Alonso knew the team felt the same way as shown by his £40,000,000 a year salary which was the most of any driver on the grid by about £9 million. As we all know, this inevitably caused quite a toxic environment where the team tried their best to pander around Alonso’s every need.
After another pretty awful season in 2017 finishing second-last on 30 points, McLaren finally split ties with Honda and managed to acquire Renault engines for the 2018 season. Up to this point McLaren had been saying that they have the best chassis on the grid and that the reason for poor performance was the engine. Therefore, logic indicates that McLaren would be performing at similar levels to the race-winning Red Bulls? However, this claim failed to come into fruition and it quickly became clear that McLaren’s issues stemmed much deeper than just the powertrain. This prompted what Zak Brown called a “major change from within”.
This moment right here, right where McLaren realised at the start of 2018 that the issues were much more systemic than just the engines was the turning point. From this point on the “major changes” really began to pay dividends. Firstly, in July 2018, racing director Eric Boullier stepped down giving way to Gil de Ferran who headed up the Indy 500 bid for Alonso in 2017. Aswell as this, technical director Tim Goss was replaced by James Key in July 2018. Then as we all know at the end of 2018, Fernando Alonso left the McLaren team to pursue challenges outside of Formula 1, this gave McLaren a few more quid to spend on the car because they no longer had to pay Alonso’s eye-watering salary. As much as I love Fernando, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he was holding McLaren back somewhat with his demands. Therefore, signing Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz gave McLaren the breath of fresh air that they desperately needed and as from this point on they went from strength to strength.
Despite McLarens turnaround, they still lacked a Team Principal such as a Christian Horner or Toto Wolff. But in no time the final piece of the puzzle was filled when in May 2019 Andreas Seidl joined McLaren to fill that Team Principal role. To put it lightly, Andreas Seidl is a serial winner having led Porsche to three straight Le Mans victories in 2015, 2016 and 2017. He has already proved his worth shown by how as soon as he joined, McLaren began to show they were the best of the rest and as we know Carlos finished 2019 6th in the championship beating both Red Bull drivers Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly. McLaren also finished best of the rest ahead of Renault by 54 points. However, McLaren know not to get comfortable, their aim is to once again fight for the championship just as they did almost a decade ago…
And believe me, the future for McLaren looks bright. For the 2021 season, Lando Norris will be joined by proven race winner Daniel Ricciardo which should prove to be an absolutely stellar line-up. Norris bounced back from being beaten by Sainz in his first season to claiming his first podium at the Austrian Grand Prix and it’s fair to say he has proven so far that he is the stand-out driver at McLaren in 2020. Aswell as the promising driver line-up, McLaren have switched back to Mercedes engines for the 2021 season. As we all know Mercedes clearly have had and continue to have the best hybrid engines, therefore McLaren have every reason to be excited for the future.
The only remaining hurdle for McLaren in the near future is the 2021 budget cap and the 2022 regulations. In many ways the budget cap of $145 million will benefit McLaren because they are already the most efficient spender outside of the “Big Three”, and the switch to Mercedes engines could very well be a cheaper decision too. On top of this, McLaren have had some very worrying financial issues in terms of finding new investors so the budget cap will also help by calming down that financial pressure. In the end the 2021 budget cap and 2022 regulations are being put in place to create a more level playing field and allow teams such as McLaren to have a better shot at competing at the front. That being said, the Coronavirus pandemic has caused financial shockwaves in the team and although Zak Brown has said the problems “have been solved”, it could indicate that there are deeper structural issues in the company, but this is just speculation.
Now, I’m not one usually one to make predictions but I would say that McLaren should be able to deliver a race-winning car within a few years once the regulations have permeated through the sport. In terms of who their main competitors will be? I can’t say for sure, but I do think we could have a Formula 1 Battle of Britain as such between McLaren and what will be Aston Martin aswell as Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari putting forward championship fights. But, as always, it’s very difficult to predict who will come out on top after a major regulation change and if 2020 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.