The month is March 2023: McLaren has begun the latest Formula 1 season with zero points across the opening two races – marking its worst start to a season in six years – having already conceded over the winter it had missed development targets with its brand-new car.
At that stage, it was hardly surprising the widespread consensus surrounding McLaren is how much more patience will Lando Norris hold before he elects to head for pastures new elsewhere. After all, this is a driver who had progressed from raw protege to established team leader at the team and raced assuredly at the front on the few occasions he has been handed a package capable of extracting such feats.
With six podium finishes and a singular pole position to his name in predominantly midfield machinery ahead of this season, there was nothing more for Norris to prove that he was worthy of a top seat – something advocated by Red Bull’s continuously rebuffed advances.
However, wind the clock forward only four months and the entire mood surrounding the McLaren camp is a complete contrast to the doom and gloom that engulfed the mere mention of its name as the 2023 F1 season embarked upon its infant stages.
Suddenly, the question of Norris facilitating a potential exit at the end of his current contract has been replaced by an overwhelming testament to the commitment he showed to McLaren when it would have been deemed acceptable if he had opted to look elsewhere when times were tough.
But what are the reasons behind this sudden transformation in perspective surrounding the Brit’s future prospects within the motorsport world?
Well, simply put, McLaren has finally delivered on the one wish Norris portrayed in pre-season when he declared the Woking squad must aim to repeat a similar step to the one Ferrari took from competing in the midfield in 2021 to then fighting at the front at the start of the following year.
It was a far-fetched thought at first, and one that, realistically, Norris surely wouldn’t have anticipated coming as early as this season considering McLaren’s deficit to the front-running trio last season. However, McLaren’s extensive development programme – which began with a raft of new parts in Baku and was subsequently succeeded by an extensive package split across the recent two rounds in Austria and Britain – has propelled the British side into a front-runner.
Despite Norris’ scepticism surrounding his encouraging run to fourth in Austria – a track he has traditionally fared well at, having scored his maiden F1 podium at the Red Bull Ring – McLaren went on to prove it was no flash in the pan by placing two cars inside the top three in qualifying at Silverstone.
The high-speed spectacle of qualifying that sees the drivers equipped with brand-new Soft tyres and the lowest fuel that they’ll have onboard all weekend can certainly mask a car’s inherent weaknesses – as did happen with McLaren in Barcelona when Norris wound up third with the old-spec car.
But Norris proceeding to support his front-row starting berth by securing a maiden home podium after holding off Lewis Hamilton on Hard tyres against the Mercedes driver on Softs in the closing laps provided a statement in itself.
Yet even after a race in which both cars should have beaten the opposition except for Verstappen – a man in a different league at present – McLaren still continued to downplay the potential of its revised car ahead of a trip to the slower-speed Hungaroring circuit that the team expected to hinder its weekend chances.
The two McLaren cars, however, ended up locking out the second row – Norris even suspecting pole position was possible after coming up 0.085s short – before the papaya squad brought two cars home inside the top five for the second successive race with Norris again a feature on the podium.
After Hungary there is simply no hiding anymore: McLaren is a certified top team based on its current form and achieving regular podiums should be the altered expectation rather than a pipe dream.
McLaren’s drastic rise has unquestionably been aided by the current regulations in place and the implementation of a cap on spending alongside restrictions on aerodynamic testing time combining to create the joint closest Q3 session in F1 history last weekend in Budapest.
However, it’s easy to forget McLaren wasn’t even a genuine Q3 contender at the start of the season, let alone possessing the underlying speed to consistently beat the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes.
To now be in a position where locking out the second row and scoring consecutive podium finishes on pure pace is extraordinary. Even a pessimistic individual such as Norris has failed to conceal his delight at the incredible progress made and the Brit has revealed he can sense his first victory is looming.
While Team Principal Andrea Stella has downplayed his overall role in McLaren’s turnaround, the ex-Ferrari race engineer deserves an abundance of praise. He had the unenviable task of replacing Alfa Romeo-bound Andreas Seidl at the helm over the winter and the side’s early-season troubles represented more than a baptism of fire embarking upon his debut team boss role.
Despite retaining inexperience in his current position, Stella had the clarity of mind to accept the advice of his technical peers that its previous philosophy had a performance ceiling and ushered in a change, even accounting for the criticism that inevitably followed amid a sluggish beginning to 2023.
He has since shown his preparedness to ruthlessly ring the changes in pursuit of bettering the chances of success, dropping former Technical Director James Key in favour of implementing a new technical structure within the team’s upper ranks.
Credit must also be tipped to CEO Zak Brown for displaying faith by prioritising an internal replacement for Seidl and not applying pressure to Stella when the results weren’t yet there. McLaren as a whole has reaped the rewards for the approach taken in all quarters by the F1 side of its operation.
From previously looking at a probable placing of sixth in the Constructors’ Championship, McLaren has the possibility to climb as high as third by the season’s end. Ferrari remains in disarray, while Aston Martin’s early-season promise has dissipated to the point where ex-McLaren racer Fernando Alonso asserts its AMR23 car is only the fifth fastest in the field.
Considering pre-season had McLaren widely ranked as either the ninth or 10th best team, it’s an astonishing reversal of fortunes – the likes mid-season that maybe only McLaren’s 2009 campaign can rival in recent memory.
McLaren will further benefit from the addition of more wind tunnel testing time than its immediate rivals for the remainder of the season, which will undoubtedly aid its possibilities for both this year and next.
Additionally, the former World Champions can call on both drivers to deliver points, with Oscar Piastri producing an excellent rookie campaign to be in close proximity to his team-mate. It marks a big contrast to ’21 and ‘22 when Ricciardo’s underperformance ultimately cost the side prize money.
With two highly competitive drivers and a car that appears to now be strong on every configuration of circuit, the challenge for McLaren is to build upon its recent progress and ensure it starts the 2024 campaign in the same shape it has thrust itself into for the remaining races of this year.
After years spent defying its historical status in the sport, McLaren is finally back amongst the big time in F1 on a performance level, delivering results more befitting of its former status as multiple World Champions.
Amid Red Bull’s record-breaking achievement of scoring 12 consecutive race wins, Norris’ second successive second-place finish in Hungary marked McLaren’s first back-to-back podiums since 2012.
But while the reigning champion’s relentless run continues, McLaren has quietly positioned itself as the side most likely to end the Austrian outfit’s streak. Imagine uttering that at the start of 2023.