McLaren must reverse its recent slide in 2023 to hold on to rising star Norris · RaceFans

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown’s rebuilding of the team following his arrival at the end of 2016 hit a couple of significant snags last year.

It began promisingly, yielding third place in the 2020 world championship, the team’s best result for eight years. The following season McLaren finally returned to the top step of the podium at Monza.

That was achieved with a car which had been converted to use a Mercedes engine in place of a Renault. So with a reset of the technical regulations coming for 2022, and the technical team having the opportunity to integrate their power unit in a ground-up design, better things were expected.

They did not materialise. The team fell to fifth in the championship standings, scored not much more than half its 2021 points tally, and mustered just a single podium appearance, at Imola. Though to their credit, they were the only other than Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes to achieve a top-three finish.

Ricciardo should’ve been in McLaren’s car this year

McLaren’s problems were twofold. First, Daniel Ricciardo‘s troubled start to life at the team – that Monza triumph notwithstanding – not only continued into last season, but worsened. The team eventually resorted to cutting his three-year deal short by a season instead of running him again in 2023 as planned.

Moreover, the MCL36 was beset by problems. Brake cooling woes thwarted them at the start of the season, but even once these were sorted McLaren never enjoyed the kind of pace which allowed them to trouble the front-runners during 2021.

A further complication unfolded over the course of the season. Brown decided against pursuing a power unit supply deal with Audi, unwilling to sell up. However he couldn’t prevented their arrival having an impact on his team: Soon after Audi agreed a deal with Sauber, they made a swoop for the man who had impressed many with his successful implementation of Brown’s vision for the team: Andreas Seidl.

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As has been widely observed, Brown’s next concern must be that another team member who has contributed much to their recent gains will follow him: Lando Norris, who single-handedly scored enough points to assure McLaren’s fifth place in the championship last year, raking in well over three times as many as Ricciardo.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Imola, 2022
McLaren’s only podium finish came at Imola last year

Norris is entering his fifth season as an F1 driver, all of which have been at McLaren. Last year he signed a new deal which will keep him at the team until the end of 2025 – the year before Audi arrive. How successful McLaren are this year will therefore have a significant bearing on his future plans.

During last season Norris remarked more than once that McLaren were only in a position to fight Alpine for fourth in the championship – a battle they ultimately lost – because their rivals kept throwing points away. Conversely, McLaren proved operationally strong, tactically sharp and quick in the pits.

Andrea Stella, Seidl’s replacement, says these are areas the team has focused on improving recently. Feats such as their sub-two-second stationary pit stop time in Mexico “were not achievable, simply, the years before.”

“I would say as well, from a strategic point of view, we will keep working on the race strategy, I think we have become a robust team, which is important to exploit the potential. Operations in the garage, I think the guys work much more confidently supporting each other.”

He is encouraged by the positive atmosphere within the team. “I think the McLaren garage is a nice environment to be,” said Stella. “And having been in Formula 1 for a long time, not necessarily being in an F1 garage and being in a place in which there are strong values, a good community, a nice place to be, are not necessarily two things that go together. So there’s a lot more than results. And that’s of course development that we are going through. And I think in this respect, we are happy.”

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However there is no getting away from the fact the raw performance hasn’t been there. This is partly because the team’s planned infrastructure upgrade, including the installation of a new wind tunnel, was badly delayed due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Stella was appointed team principal by Brown last year

“We’re behind where Andrea is,” Key admitted at the end of last year. “The race team are doing a good job, but we’re not not there yet.”

The team’s design department is “more dependent on what we planned to do in 2019 when Andreas and I arrived”, Key explained. “We said immediately we’ve got some infrastructure to put in here because we’re out of date. We know those projects, we discussed them before.

“We had an expansion planned for some of the key areas, et cetera. And then the pandemic hit the world and all of that came to a stop. So we haven’t reaped the rewards of any of those infrastructure investments yet, they’re still happening, they’re 18 months behind. And the expansion plan has to stop and we’re rejigging that now we’re in the cost cap and we’re recruiting quite heavily again in the key performance areas.

“Plans like that, which were kind of long-term but made very early, are well behind schedule. So we’re still waiting for them. But having said that I think nonetheless with what we’ve got and the team we’ve got, we continue to develop.”

McLaren therefore head into 2023 needing to raise their game amid some disruption. Oscar Piastri has arrived in place of Ricciardo, and having failed to solve his experienced predecessor’s troubles with their car over two years, McLaren badly need Piastri to click quickly with their set-up, having only joined them late last year.

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The team also needs to produce a car quick enough to reverse their slip in form last year. Norris, who found last year’s car far from ideally suited to his driving style despite claiming the lion’s share of points, will expect nothing less than a return to his 2021 situation of regular finishes in the top half of the points, plus the occasional podium and sniff of a win.

If the car is up to it, McLaren know that in Norris they have a driver who will wring the most out of it over a flying lap and scrap with the best of them on race day. Whether they can move back up the order in the championship will therefore rest both on the quality of the MCL60 and whether Piastri lives up to the reputation he established by winning consecutive junior series titles between 2019 and 2021.

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