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F1 Midweek: Can McLaren Turn Things Around?

McLaren recently announced a major overhaul of its technical department, coming in the wake of a disastrous start to the season.  One of the casualties of the reworking was the departure of technical director James Key after four years with the team. Apparently, the “Key” to success was not “James.” 

Key’s technical duties will be split between a three-man team of Peter Prodromou (aerodynamics), David Sanchez (car concept and performance), and Neil Houldey (engineering and design). These changes raise the question, or questions: Was Key overworked, or just bad at his job? Or both?  

McLaren’s shakeup confirms what their horrible start to the season suggested: they whiffed mightily on their attempts to build not only a fast car but a competitive one as well. Scoreless in the first two races, the best finish Lando Norris or Oscar Piastri could muster was a 15th by the rookie Piastri at Saudi Arabia. Pretty remarkable and inexcusable for a team that challenged to the very end of 2022 for fourth in the constructor standings. McLaren has, in fact, been fast in one area this year, and that’s going downhill.  

McLaren chief executive officer Zak Brown said of the changes, “It’s important now that we ensure we have a solid foundation as the next phase of our journey.”

He continued with a mix of word salad, corporate speak, and cliched drivel that was not surprising, yet at the same time was surprising – but only because it didn’t contain the word “synergy.” In fact, Brown’s words could have been created by an artificial intelligence bot tasked with creating a speech using “annoying and overused corporate jargon spoken by a CEO who needs to deflect blame.” Brown’s motivational speech could have possibly been made with a backdrop of one of those inspirational “Hang In There” posters.

Translation: “If this doesn’t work out, I’m next.”

The organizational changes should not be considered a huge surprise. McLaren’s leadership changes came on the heels of an offseason in which they admitted to missing developmental targets during the offseason. Even two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen said the team would need “a couple of years” before they could expect to be competitive again. And Hakkinen said this well before McLaren’s organizational shakeup. So, regarding McLaren’s issues, to say “we saw this coming” is quite applicable, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be so bad that major changes were necessary just two races into the season.

Will these changes make a difference? On one side, they won’t make an immediate impact. The reorganization is a sign that McLaren knows they’re playing the long game, and gains, if there are any, will be incremental. 

One area that offers a glimmer of hope is McLaren’s new wind tunnel, which they expect to begin utilizing in June. Funny thing is, you can use the same two words to describe McLaren’s current car and their new wind tunnel because in both cases, “it blows.”

Currently, McLaren rents Toyota’s wind tunnel in Germany, which entails physically driving parts in a van to Cologne. The process seems to be a microcosm of McLaren’s issues because it is the definition of inefficiency and highlights the peculiar sense of organization that has been part of the team. 

With the F1 cost cap down to $135 million this year, McLaren’s new wind tunnel will help with budgetary restrictions as well. Owning your wind tunnel (as opposed to renting one) is more efficient and therefore cheaper. This frees up money to invest in other areas (like catering, if you’re Red Bull). 

McLaren can take some comfort in knowing they are not alone in their endeavor to improve dramatically. If it makes McLaren feel any better, Mercedes is also burdened with a car that failed dramatically to live up to their high expectations. Both Mercedes and McLaren, as well as other teams, find themselves in a position where radical and dramatic changes will have to become the norm if they are to make up ground, much less catch up to, the performance of Red Bull. And it’s not like Red Bull’s performance will stagnate; their innovations and technical prowess are currently well ahead of their competitors if you can call cars that can’t keep up with them “competitors.”   

McLaren’s revelations have to be especially disheartening to Norris, who, over the course of his four full seasons with McLaren, has established himself as a driver with the talent to win championships if, of course, given the right car. McLaren seemed to be on track to give him this “right” car (given his drivers standings position of 9th, 6th, and 7th from 2020 to 2022), but the technical restructuring can be seen as nothing but a huge setback, as well as one that will take years to dig themselves out of.

As for Piastri, he may be having second thoughts about leaving Alpine, who named him to replace the departing Fernando Alonso for the 2023 season, only then to have Piastri reject Alpine’s announcement and join McLaren. Currently in the 2023 season, Alpine sits comfortably in 5th in the constructor standings, a spot McLaren occupied at the end of 2022. 

In short, things are certain to get better for McLaren. Not necessarily because of the changes they have implemented but merely because things can’t get worse. It’s one thing to make your car competitive again. It’s another to make it merely relevant again. The latter should serve as a short-term goal for the team.

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