Last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix concluded a winless streak for McLaren that had stretched back almost nine years. Motorsport Week reflects on McLaren’s years in the wilderness, its demise, and its ongoing recovery back to title contention.
Prior to Ricciardo’s triumph in Monza, it was Jenson Button who had claimed McLaren’s most recent victory at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix. It could have been Lewis Hamilton on the top step had he not collided with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg in a battle for the lead.
The MP4-27 was a front-running car that claimed seven wins and 11 podiums in the hands of Button and Hamilton but proved not to have the edge against the combination of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull.
Due to the car lacking consistency and reliability, it ultimately proved to be Hamilton’s final season at the team before departing for Mercedes.
After Hamilton’s departure, Sergio Perez was brought in to fill the void and signs initially looked good during pre-season testing when the car was quick in winter-testing, leading many to believe it could be a challenge for Red Bull.
The disappointment hit the team after it was discovered a suspension component had been mounted the wrong way which led to an extremely low ride height, allowing for faster times.
When corrected, the car proved inconsistent and slower than expected, and it was only capable of contending for regular points.
After deciding to promote test driver Kevin Magnussen in place of Perez, McLaren entered 2014 with a renewed sense of optimism thanks to Mercedes’ power advantage entering the new era of hybrid power unit regulations. Ron Dennis would also return as CEO in a bid to help boost the team’s fortunes.
The opening race in Australia proved to be the car’s best outing as Magnussen crossed the line third behind Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull and Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes. However, a penalty for Ricciardo saw him disqualified which allowed Button to claim the final spot on the podium.
But the partnership with Mercedes was loose at best owing to McLaren’s decision mid-2013 to take on Honda power from 2015. Its MP4-29 was also a relatively lacklustre machine that limited the results.
After the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the end of season test saw the team try out the new Honda power unit…
McLaren’s decline took a sharp turn for the worst after switching to Honda as a power unit supplier. The Honda RA615H was designed in-line with chassis ‘size zero’ car philosophy and the partnership started dismally, amid a lack of overall power and chronic unreliability.
It coincided with Fernando Alonso’s shock return to the team he abruptly left in 2007.
A testing accident for Alonso in Barcelona left him unable to participate at the opening round in Australia and Magnussen would fill in for the Spaniard, however, on the way to the grid the Honda engine expired, effectively summing up how the season would unravel.
Fifth, in Hungary, proved to be McLaren’s best result of the campaign as it slumped to ninth in the standings, ahead only of the limited Manor Marussia team.
The season kicked off in dramatic fashion in Australia as Fernando Alonso collided with Haas’ Esteban Gutierrez at Turn 3, barrel-rolling into the gravel trap. A broken rib would see him miss the next round in Bahrain where Stoffel Vandoorne filled in for the Spaniard and scored a point on his F1 debut.
Honda made gains with its power unit to at least return McLaren to the midfield, capable of scoring regular points, though the podium remained a distant dream.
Off-track a sizeable change was made as Ron Dennis left McLaren and was replaced by commercial guru Zak Brown.
But the hopes of a swift recovery was to be short-lived…
Just when its prospects looked to be taking a positive turn, the 2017 season was a massive step backwards.
Honda revised its power unit concept but it proved to be drastically underpowered and woefully unreliable. Despite what appeared to be a solid chassis and aero package, the power unit was not able to provide enough power to compete with the midfield. Honda was now effectively three years behind the curve.
McLaren, as in 2015, finished only ninth of 10 teams, besting just a cash-strapped Sauber team that used year-old Ferrari units.
During 2017, Brown ensured McLaren would move away from Honda to take up Renault power for the 2018 season and the initial prospects for the team began to look positive once again.
But fifth for Alonso proved a false dawn as the MCL33’s deficiencies were exposed when compared to Red Bull’s RB14, which also ran Renault power. It prompted an in-depth assessment of McLaren’s facilities and management structure as the team unearthed the setbacks previously masked by Honda.
Eric Boullier resigned as Team Principal, with Brown effectively fronting the team on an interim period, while Alonso and the struggling Vandoorne departed at the end of the season. There was a noteable change in tone from Brown as he realised the long-term nature of the project.
Along with Brown’s management restructuring from within, a new driver line-up in Carlos Sainz and rookie Lando Norris proved to be very fruitful.
The MCL34 was ‘the best of the rest’ in the midfield battle behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull across the season as a regular points season.
A cunning strategy from Sainz during a chaotic race in Brazil ensured a fourth-place finish, but a penalty for Lewis Hamilton meant the Spaniard was elevated to the podium, ending a five-year drought.
Off-track Andreas Seidl brought a fresh management style that reinvigorated the team while James Key joined as Technical Director, bolstering a revised technical team that had already made gains with the 2019 car. A deal was also done, for 2021, to reunite with Mercedes.
After the pandemic obliterated the original plans for the calendar, the season began in Austria where McLaren picked up where it left off as Lando Norris secured a podium in the first of two races at the Red Bull Ring.
With Ferrari’s drop in competitiveness, McLaren was able to scoop up more points throughout the season to secure a further step up in the constructors’ championship.
It narrowly missed out on victory in Monza as Sainz ran out of laps chasing down Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri in the second half of the race.
Off-track there were more movements, with Daniel Ricciardo signed in place of Ferrari-bound Sainz for 2021; it showed belief in McLaren’s long-term potential after he previously rejected its advances in 2018.
With the 2020 chassis locked in for another season, minus some aerodynamic tweaks, McLaren spent its permitted allowance for changes making room for the Mercedes power unit.
Norris shone through the first half of 2021, scoring a trio of podiums, and twice came close to grabbing pole position. Ricciardo, however, was slightly off the pace in McLaren’s closely-fought scrap for third in the standings with Ferrari.
Nevertheless Ricciardo persevered and was rewarded at Monza as he fronted Norris to claim a 1-2, ending McLaren’s 170-race wait to add victory number 183.
As Ricciardo and Norris celebrated on the podium it was a world away from the grim days of 2015 that involved fake podium ceremonies, deckchairs and terse radio messages…