Why McLaren are right to shake up their technical team

When will McLaren get back to winning-ways? Can they rectify their 2023 Formula 1 campaign?

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McLaren sit bottom of the Formula 1 constructor standings after a nightmare two rounds where mistakes, poor reliability, misfortune and most worryingly, a lack of pace.

Following the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, McLaren announced they had parted ways with technical director James Key amid other structural changes.

David Sanchez will return the team from the start of 2024 and will report to team principal Andrea Stella along with Peter Prodromou and Neil Houldey.

These changes will have a massive impact on McLaren and they were needed because, as Brown says, it has been clear for some time that the technical development in Woking was not good enough to get Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri to the front of the grid.

Oscar Piastri and Andrea Stella appraise the MCL60, McLaren’s 2023 F1 car | McLaren F1 Team

A sense of inevitability for McLaren

Even before a wheel had been turned in F1 2023, there was a sense of pessimism here at Total-Motorsport.com about McLaren.

I stated my lack of confidence in Key and the team due to Carlos Sainz, Norris and most notably Daniel Ricciardo all admitting a unique driving style has been needed to extract performance from McLaren‘s last three cars.

Ricciardo wasn’t able to adapt and rightly lost his seat, but it’s never a good sign when you have cars from different regulations not being easy to get on top of.

Key joined McLaren from Toro Rosso in 2019, leading the production of two cars, for 2020 and 2021, that put the team at the head of the midfield.

Considering McLaren were spending less money than the so-called big three teams, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes, they did very well to finish third and fourth in the constructors’ championship during those two years.

But, it never felt like they were going to get back to winning-ways and Norris‘ sensational performances almost covered up the weak parts of the car.

James Key speaking to the press at the French GP | McLaren

Failing to adapt to new floor rules

A technical directive was introduced ahead of the 2022 Belgian GP which saw the floors raised by 15mm in a bid to limit porpoising.

Although there was not an instant change to the pecking order, it seems McLaren have not dealt with this change well and it threw them off going into the winter.

Whatever targets were set, they were far too low because the MCL60 lacks so much downforce and has a massive fundamental problem – drag.

Piastri and Norris were losing ground on the straights to the Williams of Logan Sargeant in Jeddah, despite having DRS and a slipstream. The McLaren appears to be one of the least efficient cars on the grid and that will require a big upgrade to get back on track.

This is likely why Key is out as the blame has to lie somewhere because it’s not good enough and McLaren know that.

“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,” said Zak Brown.

“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.”

All eyes on McLaren’s upgrades

During pre-season testing, McLaren were already talking about the Azerbaijan GP and a big upgrade at the end of April, following the four-week break, which they hope will rectify some of their problems.

Team principal Stella feels McLaren currently have the sixth fastest car, which is probably true given reliability in Bahrain and front wing damage in Saudi Arabia made Norris and Piastri‘s weekends look worse than they were.

But, other teams will improve too and what will be most interesting is whether McLaren can close the gap to the front four of Red Bull, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes.

“When it comes to the Baku upgrade, we do see the numbers, which are promising,” Stella told reporters. “Hopefully from sixth, it will allow us to be fifth.

Andrea Stella speaking to reporters after the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix
Andrea Stella McLaren Team Principal during the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix | Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“It’s 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 we require another couple of upgrades following Baku on which we are working.”

When will McLaren get back to winning ways?

Prior to Ricciardo‘s stunning win at the 2021 Italian GP, McLaren had not stood on the top step of the podium since the 2012 Brazilian GP.

Prodromou is an interesting character because he first joined McLaren in 1991 and was a key part of their success, along with Adrian Newey, during the 1990s.

He and Newey moved to Red Bull in 2006, helping the team grow into a force in F1 with four consecutive titles for Sebsatian Vettel between 2010 and 2013.

In 2014, Prodromou returned to McLaren, so he has been there for nearly another decade now, but is he someone who can look at a set of regulations and design a car that can match the quality of what Red Bull and Aston Martin have produced this year, for example? I’m not so sure.

Lando Norris in action at the Saudi Arabian GP | McLaren

This is where Sanchez, who initially left McLaren in 2012 for Ferrari, comes in but we won’t know what he can do with the design and engineering team until 2025 at the earliest, given he can only begin work on January 1 next year.

Don’t forget, the long-awaited McLaren wind tunnel will finally be up and running this June with millions going into the facility.

That will make things easier from a logistical point of view because, up until now, team members have been travelling to and from Toyota‘s wind tunnel in Cologne.

McLaren must back Brown

There has been some criticism regarding CEO Zak Brown but McLaren were in a dire situation when he took over just at the team parted ways with Honda in 2017.

Andreas Seidl‘s surprise decision to leave at the end of 2022 was a big sign that things were not right in Woking and Brown is spot on to make changes now, rather than wait.

McLaren were also not financially secure, far from it, with a lack of sponsors but they are now in a very strong position in this area as DP World, Jack Daniel’s and K-Swiss have become the most recent sponsors to join the car.

McLaren Chief Executive Officer Zak Brown | REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

Outside if F1, McLaren have branched out into Extreme E, Formula E and IndyCar as they grow their global motorsport output as the automotive industry goes into the unknown of carbon neutrality over the coming decade.

Keeping the McLaren roots of racing is above anything else and Brown has been instrumental here.

The line-up of Norris and Piastri is excellent, so now they need to ensure both drivers stay for the long-term, at least showing some promise in the first half of this season and developing their way back into the game.

In terms of winning races and titles though? Aston Martin have proved a midfield team can make the bridge to the front, but the new McLaren restructure needs to be given time to perform.

Nigel Chiu
Nigel Chiuhttps://total-motorsport.com/author/nigel-chiu/
Nigel Chiu is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who worked at Total-Motorsport for 18 months until May 2023. He has been following F1 since 2007 and hasn’t missed a Grand Prix weekend since. Nigel’s worked with several motorsport websites, plus Eurosport and subsequently went on to work with Sky Sports F1 where he travels to multiple F1 races each season.
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