Rewind back three years, and the much loved McLaren team were in quite a worrying state. Team captain Ron Dennis, who oversaw the success of the team from as far back as 1981 was made to walk the plank, engine manufacturers Honda were slowly getting impatient at being constantly made a show of thanks to the brutal reliability of their power units at the time, driver Fernando Alonso was getting openly frustrated at the lack of progress and long time driver Jenson Button decided enough was enough and took the retirement route. For the team that brought people like James Hunt, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton success and titles throughout the decades, it looked as if there might not be a way back to the top. However, it seems now the team might just finally be on the back up.
Former American racing driver Zak Brown now spearheads the operation, having took over from Dennis in 2017, and wasn't long about changing things straight away. By 2017's Singapore Grand Prix, Brown had announced that McLaren were dropping the Honda partnership for 2018 in favour of Renault power units, marking the first time that McLaren were powered by the French manufacturer. In 2017 also, McLaren made their much anticipated return stateside and became an entrant into the 2017 Indianapolis 500, with a Papaya orange Andretti ran McLaren Honda IndyCar, with none other than Alonso at the helm. Unsurprisingly, Alonso shone on the oval scene and was looking on course to even challenge for victory until, rather coincidentally you will agree I am sure, an engine failure put paid to his chances twenty laps from the end.
By the end of 2018, the vibe within the team was that once again, major changes were afoot within the team. The year with the new Renault power units started promising, with Alonso beginning the year in Melbourne with an impressive fifth ahead of power unit rivals' Red Bull and their Dutch Lion Max Verstappen. However, as the year progressed, the true weaknesses in both the chassis and the power unit began to show and the team dropped down the order once again. Alonso had enough and he himself announced retirement from F1, the team dropped their young protegé Stoffel Vandoorne, rather unfairly some would agree, and then team principal Eric Boullier was given the boot by Silverstone. Was it the right thing to do, getting rid of the people and staff already in the mess? Who was going to come next? Would they not end up the same? 2019 was going to be a very different year for McLaren, and one that was going to matter more than any other recent years.
Two new drivers took to the team for 2019. Spain's second coming after Alonso in F1, ex-Renault man Carlos Sainz, who himself was dropped in favour of Daniel Ricciardo at Renault for 2019, was drafted into the team, while the second seat was occupied by McLaren junior and up-and-comer Lando Norris, making his debut in F1, and boy was it a good move. The pair get on like a house on fire, and I cannot really recall a driver pairing getting on together so well, referring to all the memes, karaoke and rather recent headbanging that the pair have been smothering social media with this year, much to our delight and amusement.
The car itself, the MCL34, has been a massive improvement from the previous years' car and one that both drivers have been able to get the most out of. Thanks to the combination of both a good car and good drivers, McLaren are sitting on fourth in the constructors championship with 121 points coming into the Brazilian Grand Prix, the first time the team has exceeded the 100 point barrier since their last year powered by Mercedes in 2014, and looking on course also to take more points this year than the entire three years powered by Honda combined. Not to mention, thanks to the positive results thus far and the spirit of the higher order and the drivers themselves, from the outside the team morale looks as good as ever.
Brown also, had managed to build a very promising team around him. As well as having a very positive and fun relationship with both Carlos and Lando, Brown has also managed to do the same with the former McLaren champ Mika Hakkinen who, despite taking a sabbatical in 2001 that he never returned from, he never really left the team as such and was always there in the background through both the good and bad moments. Also, Brown has attracted some rather appealing names to the team, such as former Porsche LMP1 frontman Andreas Seidl as the current team principal and former Penske IndyCar champion Gil De Farran as the team's sporting director, things finally look to be paying off.
Here is an amusing video of Lando and Carlos playing each other on FIFA, name a better driver pairing, I'll wait!
For 2020 things are looking positive for the team. From Melbourne to the last race in Texas, the team have managed to slash the gap to the front-running cars from 1.2 seconds to 0.6 seconds, and are constantly running best of the rest out of the midfield teams. Also, the team are returning to IndyCar full time in 2020 with the Arrow McLaren SP team, running drivers Oliver Askew and Pato O'Ward, as the team look to return to the glory days of the 1970's. For 2021, McLaren recently announced that they will return to former power unit suppliers Mercedes in wake of the new regulations for the year. Mercedes, the team who powered McLaren to various successes in the 90's and 00's, adds more promise to the team that is already delivering.
For me, and I wouldn't really consider myself as a fan as such, I feel for McLaren in recent years, but I am very happy to see them improving and moving up the order with proper momentum. Just like the so-called “Top 3” teams we see in current F1, when I grew up with the sport in the early 2000's, that top 3 was known as Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, so I have a special thought for them, even though I wouldn't particularly support them. McLaren is one of the most historically relevant teams and the second most successful team in the history of F1, so it is just as important to have them, or even Williams up with the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.
With the way things are going, I think they should be ready for an outside challenger in their little comfort bubble of pace and performance. Many doubt Brown and his motley crew could turn the ball and rebuild McLaren to what it once was, but I am very confident that those that did doubt, will be silenced very soon.