McLaren tempered its expectations heading into the 2023 Formula 1 season after acknowledging that it had changed development direction.
That meant the early season grands prix, with the launch-spec MCL60, were unlikely to yield much in the way of results.
Yet the hard results have been chastening for a team celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Rookie Oscar Piastri heads to his maiden home race 19th in the Drivers’ Championship, ahead only of the occupant of the sister MCL60, Lando Norris.
McLaren is last in the Constructors’ Championship and only AlphaTauri is also yet to pick up a point in 2023.
The results so far in 2023: P17/DNF, P15/P17. It marks McLaren’s worst start to a Formula 1 season since 2000.
But amid the malaise there have been encouraging glimpses for McLaren.
It knew heading to the early grands prix that it does not yet have the car it wants.
Despite that setback Norris was in contention for points in Bahrain, a race at which Piastri made early gains from his grid spot, while in Saudi Arabia Piastri excelled to qualify ninth.
“On any given day, in any session, we’re anywhere between fifth and last really – it’s so close, the difference is tiny,” explained Piastri. “I think Red Bull, Ferrari, Aston and Mercedes are definitely a step ahead of us – probably Alpine as well – and I think us and the rest of the field are extremely tight.”
The setbacks McLaren has suffered have spiralled into larger issues.
Norris suffered a pneumatic pressure issue in Bahrain, requiring a pit stop every 10 laps, an issue Mercedes HPP had never before encountered.
That engine is now on the scrapheap (McLaren’s decision to continue in the race had no contribution to its expiration) meaning Norris is likely to face penalties sooner than expected. Piastri, meanwhile, suffered an electrical issue in the steering column and was forced out.
In Saudi Arabia, Piastri went wheel-to-wheel with Alpine’s Pierre Gasly through Turn 2 and the A523 drifted to clip the endplate of Piastri’s MCL60. It was an innocuous moment but the damaged endplate detached and such is the aerodynamic sensitivity of these cars that Piastri required a pit stop.
To accentuate matters Norris, who started 19th after brushing the wall in Q1, was unsighted and hit the debris, damaging his own front wing, prompting a pit stop. From there, given the current performance of the car, McLaren’s die was cast.
“You know we take these things on the chin,” said boss Andrea Stella. “We are racers, we don’t give up. We just move on to the next race.”
That means McLaren is optimistic of contending for Q3 – and points – at Piastri’s home grand prix.
“We were more competitive in Jeddah [than Bahrain] as the tarmac is very grippy, so you rely less on aero load, so these conditions hide a little bit the underlying deficit from an aero point of view.
“As a track, in terms of tarmac grip, the speed of the corners, [Melbourne] should be more similar to Saudi than Bahrain. So we look forward to that place in terms of being able again to challenge for Q3 and challenge for good points.”
With the cancellation of China, and absence of a replacement round, Melbourne will be the final event before McLaren introduces its revised MCL60 – though once more expectations have been cooled.
“The Baku upgrade, we do see the numbers, which are promising,” Stella said. “It’s hopefully [enough] from sixth [fastest] to allow us to be fifth. It is not enough yet to achieve our objective for the season which is to become a top four car. This will require the Baku upgrade and will require another couple of upgrades following Baku on which we are working.”
McLaren acted last week by announcing a revision of its technical leadership team, a restructure it has been working on for months, with the scapegoat being Technical Director James Key.
Under Key McLaren had something of a mini-revival, with the repurposed MCL35M winning a race in 2021, but McLaren failed to grasp the opportunity presented by new regulations, missed floor tricks, and started 2023 with its outdated concept.
“It has been clear to me for some time that our technical development has not moved at a quick enough pace to match our ambition of returning to the front of the grid,” said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown.
“I’m pleased that, having completed a full review with Andrea, we are now able to implement the restructure required to set the wheels in motion to turn this around. These strategic changes ensure the long-term success of the team and are necessary to see McLaren get back to winning ways.
“We have everything coming into place now with our people and infrastructure and alongside an exciting driver line-up, I’m determined to see McLaren get back to where we should be.”
Key’s effective replacement, David Sanchez, will not be joining until January 1, where he will slot in alongside Peter Prodromou and Neil Houdley. The trio will report to Stella. McLaren migrated away from design by committee, following its much criticised ‘matrix structure,’ but has now shifted back towards such an approach.
Nevertheless, further recruitment is expected while its state-of-the-art wind tunnel at its Woking factory is being calibrated ahead of being operational in June. That is part of McLaren’s investment in order to return to title contention for 2025 – a year where there will be no more excuses.
Acting now shows the technical team required a revamp, and changed ambitions, but in the short-term 2023 needs an upturn in performance to avoid a slow start turning into a miserable season.