As McLaren continues to break away from the trenches that encapsulated its darkest days in Formula 1’s turbo hybrid era, the announcement that it has signed an option to join the Formula E grid shows the historical team is playing an increasingly prominent role in major motorsport categories.
A potential expansion to Formula E, as a team rather than as a supplier as it is now, only further gauges McLaren’s plans as a racing brand going forward as it continues to distribute itself with an eye on success.
Off-track the brand’s reputation has altered further, assisted by showing the relationship between Lando Norris and the outgoing Carlos Sainz, with the Spaniard replaced by the exuberant Daniel Ricciardo.
Norris has amassed a large following in a short frame of time, helped by cosying up with Twitch and YouTube stars alike, and being allowed to show off his own character – a welcome change appreciated by many, who are often only used to seeing a driver speak behind a microphone in a monotonous fashion.
Norris has a very different psyche to what McLaren would’ve demanded just a handful of years ago, and it is just one of many changes that have been made to re-jig the system of the Woking-based squad.
At the helm of the new era is Zak Brown, who endured a difficult first couple of years as McLaren CEO, with the team suffering mortifying campaigns in 2017 and 2018, amid the divorce with Honda and subsequent realisation that there were deep-rooted problems previously masked by the power unit.
McLaren began its recovery in 2019, enjoying a far stronger season that it initially expected, under the tutelage of new team boss Andreas Seidl, culminating in a return to the podium after a five-year absence.
Right when focus was being put into its F1 resurgence, McLaren announced that it would be expanding to IndyCar for 2020, partnering up with the Schmidt Peterson team. It came after a disastrous effort at the 2019 Indianapolis 500 in which Fernando Alonso failed to qualify following a string of failures. The full-time effort showed McLaren was serious and that it was not simply massaging Alonso’s Triple Crown quest in heading westwards.
Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, the Arrow McLaren SP outfit handled itself modestly, with Patricio O’Ward starring to fourth in the Driver standings. For 2021 it has recruited Felix Rosenqvist, who spent the last two years impressing at Chip Ganassi after establishing his name in Europe, while Juan Pablo Montoya will be reunited with the team as he targets a third Indianapolis 500 victory.
Acquiring the talents of Rosenqvist and Montoya reflects the respect that McLaren has quickly acquired in the United States, and has set a tone for what it wants to achieve elsewhere.
McLaren has even suggested that the alliance it has in F1 and IndyCar may see its drivers in the US take part in F1 tests going forward. Covid-19, and travel restrictions, has put a halt to such ideas so far.
McLaren is resurging in Formula 1 and it’s just getting started in IndyCar – but the line isn’t drawn there, as an entry into sportscar competition has been hinted at by Brown.
“I love we’re in Formula 1, IndyCar, I’d love to see us get back to sportscars,” Brown said last year. “My dream would be the Formula 1 World Championship, Indy 500, IndyCar Championship, Le Mans and we can do all of those things at McLaren but that’ll probably take 20 years, so I’ve got big aspirations.”
McLaren has rejected fears that dipping into new series’ will distract itself from the task of returning to the top step of the F1 podium, which it almost achieved at the Italian Grand Prix in 2020.
To get there consistently is another challenge altogether, but its intent to do so remains largely in place. The team is still planning to construct its own wind tunnel, having used Toyota’s in Cologne in recent years, however that scheme has been delayed as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Should they take on a new challenge in Formula E, whether it be by forming its own team or partnering an existing outfit, its ambitions are shining through – to become the ultimate racing outfit that others can take example from.
Brown previously asserted that he would be happy to see Ricciardo and Norris drive at the Bathurst 1000, the jewel in the Australian Supercars Championship.
“I think people now know I’m a little bit different than most of the team bosses in F1 as I like to see our drivers go out and give it a go at Daytona or Le Mans, things of that nature,” Brown said earlier this year. “I think it’ll just come down to schedule and whether they can fit it in the schedule.”
That willingness to let a driver have a bit of racing freedom outside of F1 must be a welcome luxury, however difficult it would be to pull off, given the complications posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing number of race weekends on an F1 calendar.
The environment at McLaren is open and friendly – even perhaps wholesome – but its determination to win, regardless of what grid it is on, remains as firm as ever.