The great McLaren renaissance: what’s behind the team’s revival?

McLaren are on the rise again

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McLaren’s one-two in Monza last month was the team’s first win in almost nine years. And while it owed a degree of fortune to the fact that title favourites Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen took each other out midway through proceedings, no one can say the Woking team did not deserve it. McLaren have been steadily improving after some desperate years by their standards.  

The difference between now and 2016 – when they laboured to 76points in the championship, half as many as hard-up Williams – is night and day; new team principal, new direction, new drivers, new power. To prove the Monza win was no fluke, Lando Norris took pole at the following race in Russia and should have won. 

Telegraph Sport looks at the key factors behind McLaren’s recent resurgence and asks whether they can reasonably expect to be challenging for titles once again.

The end of the house that Ron built and the arrival of Zak Brown

McLaren are the second most successful team in Formula 1 history, with legendary drivers such as Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen steering them to a combined 183 race victories, 12 Drivers’ Championships and 8 Constructors’ Championships. But by the time Ron Dennis lost a court case against his fellow shareholders in the autumn of 2016, subsequently selling his remaining shares in the team he had built, they were in dire straits. 

A combination of factors – the $100m Spygate fine, the loss of Mercedes power, the departure of Lewis Hamilton, infighting between Dennis and CEO Martin Whitmarsh, the too-thin spreading of finite resources… all had contributed to a dramatic downward spiral and there was a sense the team had reached an evolutionary dead end. 

The arrival of American Zak Brown, a brash American businessman and former driver, was not the obvious answer. But his impact has been impressive. Initially appointed to the board of the McLaren Technology Group, the 49-year-old – a self-confessed “workaholic” who says he gets by on five hours sleep per night, famously firing off emails from his phone which never sleeps – was promoted to CEO of McLaren Racing in 2018 and has overseen a complete operational restructure since then, which have transformed the team’s fortunes.

‘Low-key’ Andreas Seidl quiet but effective

Brown arrived with a reputation for sponsorship and brand-building, and did not entirely convince in his first couple of years when he was also obliged to act as de facto team principal, a job to which he was less suited. To his credit, though, he acted decisively in 2018 when McLaren produced another dog of a car. Eric Boullier, the Frenchman who infamously rewarded his staff with Freddo chocolate bars when they produced packages on time, was forced to walk the plank, and Brown brought in a new technical and leadership team. 

Andrea Stella was promoted to engineering director, James Key also came on board as technical director, and both have proved shrewd signings. The arrival of Andreas Seidl one year later was another masterstroke. The German was not a big name (although he had plenty of F1 experience with BMW, Seidl arrived from a stint with Porsche’s LMP1 project) and he remains very low-key now. But he was exactly what McLaren needed, providing clear leadership and a strategic vision.

Lando Norris and Andreas Seidl (R) celebrate after his second place at Monza

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Return to Mercedes power

The partnership with Honda from 2015-2017, trumpeted as a return to the glory years of the 1980s, was an unmitigated disaster, McLaren eventually having to buy its way out of the deal and become a Renault customer in 2018. The results gradually improved – fourth place and a podium in 2019, third place and two podiums in 2020. But what really made the difference was managing to secure a deal to take Mercedes power units once again this season. Combined with a new windtunnel, which is due to be completed some time next year, and various other infrastructure projects, including an investment in CFD facilities, the overall impression given is of joined-up thinking by Key, Seidl and Brown.

Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo ‘bromance’

With the good ship McLaren righted, the mood surrounding the team has been transformed. Nowhere has that been more obvious than in their driver dynamic, which feels like one of the healthiest on the grid. Norris, still just 21, has been a revelation on track this season, so much so you could make an argument that he has rather shown up new team mate Daniel Ricciardo. 

But the Australian’s unquenchable bonhomie and vast experience have ensured that has not been an issue at all. The fact that Ricciardo bagged the team’s first win in Italy helped, of course. Norris’ reaction to that win – genuine delight for his team-mate, sharing ‘Shoeys’ with his team-mate on the podium – reflected well on their relationship. And their interactions on social media and in interviews is just great PR. It all feels a long way from Fernando Alonso’s very public rebukes when he was toiling around at the back of the midfield.

Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris have a healthy competitive relationship

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…. but can McLaren now challenge for the title?

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz believes so. "Absolutely,” he said this week of his former team. "I think I have said it a couple of times already that I feel like McLaren, as a race team, is ready to win championships. They just need a car capable of doing it.” 

But therein lies the problem. While the team are clearly on an upward trajectory, there are valid reasons to be cautious. Firstly, there are huge technical regulation changes coming in next year and no one has any idea yet which team will have made the best first of interpreting them. Secondly, you could argue that while McLaren’s move to Mercedes power allowed them to make a big step this year, as a customer team they are always going to come up against a glass ceiling. Mercedes, as the works team, work hand-in-glove with their engine team at Brixworth, continually working together to make the package more efficient. McLaren just get what they are given. 

That was okay in the old days but it just doesn’t cut it any more. It is a conundrum Red Bull are trying to solve by taking ownership of their own engine project. Perhaps McLaren will have to do similar if they want to be champions once more.

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