McLaren ended its nine-year wait for a grand prix victory when Daniel Ricciardo led a 1-2 in Italy, and two weeks later in Russia it almost doubled up until a late rain shower thwarted Lando Norris’ efforts from pole position.
As recently as three years ago race wins and even podium finishes were a pipe dream for the Woking-based outfit. The atmosphere reeked, and through the opening five years of the turbo hybrid era, McLaren appeared a lost team, confined towards the rear of the field and unable to answer its own problems.
Zak Brown took control of McLaren in late 2016 and had to endure a difficult final year with engine supplier Honda in 2017, before an arguably more tortuous campaign in 2018. In 2019, he brought Andreas Seidl onboard to focus on the day-to-day operations, while the highly respected James Key was poached from Toro Rosso and installed as Technical Director.
McLaren has risen from the depths of the wretched post-summer 2018 stint, when it scored points just twice en route to sixth overall, to fourth, and then third, a position it is striving to retain this year.
It highlights an impressive turnaround, and has only come following a deep readjustment within the organisation.
“I think the most important thing was that years ago, we made a kind of a reset to the team, putting clearly on the table where we saw deficits that we had,” explains Seidl. “I’ve put in place a clear plan on the organisational side, on the cultural side and the labour sector side, how we want to eliminate this deficit that we’re having, and how we want to get back to the front in Formula 1.
“And I think if you look at what we could achieve in terms of results now the last two and a half years, we could make good steps already on this journey back to the front of Formula 1.”
Publicly, the perception of McLaren has shifted. Once an adrift team with miserable results and a disgruntled two-time World Champion spearheading its driver line-up, it now has proven race winner Ricciardo under its roof – who despite his struggles this year is a valuable asset – as well as Norris, who has been one of 2021’s standout drivers.
Behind the scenes there was restructuring under Key that allowed personnel to flourish on the technical side. That was undertaken in conjunction with the approval of Seidl and Racing Director Andrea Stella.
“I think Andreas and I were quite aligned together with peers and Andrea as a group,” Key says. “We put our heads together. The cultural changes, trying to generate a slightly different feeling around what was achievable. The great thing with that is the team was absolutely open to change.
“So things like integrating our groups more so we’re looking at the car as a whole rather than individual functions was something that I spotted, [that] was different to what I was used to and I felt was probably not helping anyone really in understanding their wider role in designing a car.
“So opening up the process a bit more such that we had one project rather than multiple projects, sort of converge into one. Being very open with stuff, the blame cultures, etc… not that they were necessarily an issue when we arrived, but definitely not have them at all, so that people were free to talk and attack issues in a very open way.”
Part of that merely came from outlining obtainable ambitions.
“Target setting which was definitely missing, we need to have a blueprint for what we’re trying to achieve,” says Key. “And whilst there were individual targets in certain areas, bringing that together again in a whole car sense was necessary. So I think from a cultural perspective, there was definitely some work to do there, just to try and reset the way we want to work.”
Ultimately there is an excitement and expectation about McLaren once more. Its current results are only part of that. It is well committed to F1, as its own wind tunnel is on the way, ending its use of Toyota’s facility in Cologne, while it also pushed through a project for a new simulator. Its ventures outside of F1, notably IndyCar and Extreme E, only amplify the racing culture of the team.
While there was a lot of inward finger-pointing McLaren also had to look outside of its own system to understand where, why and how rivals had managed to move ahead.
“I oppose this kind of stepping back and looking at what the weaknesses of the car are, where we needed to improve,” Key says. “So we did a lot of competitor analysis, we tried to understand exactly what we’re good at what we weren’t so good at. Why is that the case? Is it methodology? Is it equipment we got? Is it our knowledge?
“Really fundamental questions, and I kind of built it up from there gave ourselves a very clear kind of objective, I suppose, step by step to trying to address these weaknesses, hang on to our strengths, and build a much more complete package. It was an all-encompassing approach I think.
“It wasn’t one thing that you go in you think ‘right, yes, the gearbox needs to look different’ or something. It was more a sort of a big picture car approach that everyone needed to grasp and work together to solve and that’s still a work in progress but it’s definitely working quite well.”
But McLaren’s aim, as is the goal of any F1 team, is to win world championships. It’s not there yet. While there were the highs of Italy and Russia it is fully aware that it was nowhere near in the Netherlands and Turkey. Nevertheless 2022, and the opportunities that presents, looms close on the horizon.
“When you see the average lifetime deficit we’re still having throughout the year compared to Red Bull and Mercedes, we have a realistic picture of where we are right now and we know that we still have a good way to go,” Seidl adds.
“But at the same time we’re obviously ambitious. We want to shortcut this journey. We know that some things we can shortcut like getting the wind tunnel in place should be key in our journey as well. But I’m very happy with what I’m seeing in terms of the development of the team.”