The Fall and Rise of McLaren in Formula One

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Image: McLaren.com / McLaren Racing — 2019 Australian Grand Prix

In a season of few surprises, the revitalized McLaren team may have provided the most welcome one in 2019. Their lengthy time in the doldrums has been disappointing for us fans, but even more so for their shareholders.

It has now been over seven years since their last win, but the Woking-based team continues to remain popular with many devoted supporters desperate for them to regain their championship-contending ways. They didn’t quite get there, but they are finally heading in the right direction.

Zero wins and one podium over a twenty-one race season may not sound like success, but the long-awaited champagne taste in Brazil was water to very chapped lips for the team.

That promotion at Interlagos from fourth to third capped a season where they easily outscored their direct competitors. The (belated) podium was a just reward. But what changed at the team that allowed them to stride forward so much this year?

World Champions? Who needs ’em

Say what you want about McLaren, but you can’t argue with their driver record. Look back on their history, and one thing is consistent. They always pick exceptional drivers. In fact, 2019 was only the third season since 1971, and first since 1982, that the team hasn’t had a world champion or world champion-to-be in their ranks. And with their young partnership, that has plenty of time to be invalidated.

Sainz Jr. and Norris brought something different to McLaren, the selection of both was one hell of a risk but has paid dividends so far. A driver that got loaned out, then dumped by Red Bull, paired with a rookie who only won one race in Formula 2. It doesn’t look like a pair of aces on the surface compared to what preceded them.

Prost, Räikkönen, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Button, Scheckter, Lauda, Hamilton, Senna, Häkkinen, Alonso. McLaren is a team that has a vast heritage, and the drivers that turn the wheel must perform. Except, had that been the problem in recent years?

Oh no! It’s Alonso

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Image: Marco Canoniero/shutterstock.com

It’s no secret that Fernando Alonso essentially turned McLaren into his team after rejoining their ranks in 2015. It was a long time since his acrimonious departure of ’07. A Button-Alonso partnership looked a sure-fire route to success. 2015 also saw the return of another ex-McLaren icon; Honda, but more on that later.

Now, there is no denying Alonso hauled his car way further up the field than it had any right to be. He proved that by consistently out-performing his teammates. It should not be considered a flaw to be as determined and demanding of success as Alonso is, but it must be partnered with leadership and teamwork too. The rumours of internal unhappiness and hostility were eventually publicly verified. “GP2 Engine”, “I have never raced with such little power in my life”, and “I don’t want; already I have problems, driving with this, looking like an amateur” being some of his greatest hits.

When the Renault engine (the engine that powered Alonso’s two championships) was installed in the back of a McLaren for the first time in 2018, it was do-or-die time for the Spaniard. The works Renault team, and Red Bull, had the same power unit. McLaren finished behind both. The encouraging 5th place finish at the season opener was to be the peak of their season. Having seen off the engine provider, racing director Eric Boullier was the next high-profile departure. Alonso insisted he had no say in the matter but his Ferrari race engineer, Andrea Stella, was promoted soon after though this was just one of several personnel changes in recent years.

Zak stays, you go

Image: Pat Lauzon/shutterstock.com

Drivers come and go in the sport, and it’s not uncommon to be an annual event for a team to wave one or both goodbye. It’s not the case for management. Not usually, at least. Following 30 years of leadership under the iconic Ron Dennis, the team has chopped and changed their high chiefs more than many in an attempt to regain former glory.

Martin Whitmarsh was the first to step into the shoes. He didn’t fit in them, so they were promptly returned to Dennis again. Paddy Lowe departed for Mercedes at this time too. A prolonged power struggle at the top to oust Ron for good did nothing positive for the team over 2014–16. Zak Brown was to be the man to restore order. Eric Boullier remained as Racing Director underneath both, but the Frenchman continued to bring nothing but nervous excuses during his tenure.

The buck now stopped with the charismatic Brown. The apple of his eye was Alonso, and he accommodated his driver with forays off to the Indy 500 and seemingly to call him a very American “champ” at every opportunity. The Brown(-Alonso) leadership got a shot of Matt Morris and Tim Goss in 2018, as well as Boullier. Gil de Ferran and James Key got brought in, as well as a temporary return for Pat Fry. We’ve already mentioned the promotion of Alonso’s ally, Stella, too. All of this excludes the crucial appointment of Porsches WEC mastermind, Andreas Seidl, to Managing Director one year ago. If you were to draw a chart, it’d look like spaghetti.

“Consistency breeds results” is what they say. It stands to reason then that “Inconsistency breeds the 2010s era for McLaren”.

McLaren-Honda. It sounded better in the ’80s

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Nostalgia is a special thing. Honda announced they were to be the fourth engine manufacturer to develop a turbo-hybrid power unit for Formula One; their attention solely dedicated to McLaren. This practically made McLaren a works team for the season. All the engine design was done exclusively for them. All the development decisions were made exclusively for them. However, all the problems were exclusively for them to resolve. It wasn’t to be four successive seasons of championship success like the ’88-’92 partnership. It was to be a three-year nightmare.

To point the blame at either McLaren or Honda is difficult here. The team claimed they had one of the best, if not the best chassis on the grid. It’s a hard claim to disprove when the engine is so much slower than those around it. Or on fire.

Motorsport is an enormous part of Honda and a hugely successful part too. Their issue was being a year behind Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault in learning how an overly complicated turbo-hybrid F1 power works. Energy Recovery Systems, MGU-H and MGU-K, fuel flow restrictions all paired with a 1.6L V6 turbo aren’t off-the-shelf parts. While the other engine suppliers had multiple teams to test with, plus a year’s head start, Honda only had McLaren. And an increasingly uncooperative McLaren (and Alonso) at that, too.

It was conceivable that the most reasonable blame should be to point at both McLaren and Honda. Then 2018 happened. The two parted ways, McLaren opted to try a Renault for the very first time, and Honda interviewed for the Red Bull position by supplying Toro Rosso. Honda had little to prove on track with a team that wasn’t expecting to dominate but impressed off-track enough to have Red Bull sign up. McLaren, meanwhile, languished behind the other Renault-powered cars. All the boasts of the best chassis in the field coincidentally disappeared too. McLaren’s problems ran much deeper than the engine.

2019: All Change

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And so it was to be fresh blood that began the healing process of years-old troubles in 2019. Sainz Jr and Norris had no ego that required stroking. Sainz was lucky to have a drive after Renault hired Ricciardo, and 19-year old Norris just seemed happy to be invited. These were two young drivers who were there to drive, not complain.

The Seidl appointment was a massive addition to the senior personnel at the team. It seems the German’s systematic approach, which brought success to the LMP1 Porsche team, can carry across racing series. Zak Brown is the PR-friendly face that deals with the media, leaving Seidl free to manage in a way that Boullier couldn’t. And after a definitive restructuring in 2019, the revolving door of executives seems to have stopped at McLaren and laid a solid foundation to improve in the future.

A new partnership teething problems could be to blame for Renault not propelling McLaren further up the timesheets. But Red Bull managed victories with the same engine, so it seems unlikely. The team changed a lot between 2018 and 2019, and so did the results with a Renault-power unit. In a field of just two, McLaren finished last year as decisive victors of the Renault-powered teams.

They may not have claimed any victories with a Renault, as Red Bull have, but that’s okay. No team outside the ‘Big Three’ has won a race in 121 races. The last team that did, Lotus F1, no longer exist in the same form; they’re now Renault F1. But who won the two races before Lotus? McLaren. And after their 2019 trajectory, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next triumph over the ‘Big Three’ comes from McLaren again.

Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com where you can find more motoring news and reviews.

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A tall man, living around the world, watching fast cars

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