Formula 1: What helped to make McLaren great again

Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) /

After struggling since 2013, the switch to Renault power in 2018 allowed British Formula 1 constructor McLaren to turn their fortunes around.

McLaren have had a painful time in Formula 1 since seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton left the team at the end of the 2012 season.

While Hamilton’s decision to switch from grey to silver in 2013 has seen him claim six world championships, McLaren’s exploits have been less successful.

In 2013, a new radical design saw the team go backwards, with drivers Sergio Perez and Jenson Button finding themselves fighting in the heart of the midfield despite the team having arguably the fastest car the year before.

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2014 was not much better despite a double podium finish in the opening race of the hybrid era. The Woking-based team failed to repeat that performance and finished in fifth place in the constructor standings for the second consecutive year.

But 2015 was meant to be the start of McLaren’s championship-winning exploits with the rekindling of their partnership with Honda. However, the Japanese manufacturer was playing catch-up with their competitors and their power unit was slow and unreliable throughout the first season. They picked up just 27 points and finished in ninth place in standings.

After the opening qualifying session of the season, McLaren team principal Ron Dennis stated the following, according to Sky Sports.

"“We are going to be heavily criticized through the opening part of the season but we know what it takes to win and we have every belief in Honda’s ability to produce a winning engine. This is an appropriate time to be a strong partner. They understand the problems but we are functioning as one team. If there are any comments to be made about the engine, it’s for Honda to make it.”"

With Honda’s improvement, McLaren were much better and finished in sixth place in 2016. But at the end of the year, Honda announced that they had to redesign the power unit, as they had reached the performance cliff with the current design.

At the same time, McLaren CEO Ron Dennis announced that he was stepping down as the McLaren boss, with American businessman Zak Brown taking his place.

But 2017 was another painful season which saw them again finish in ninth place. So they announced that for 2018, they would be using Renault power.

This was meant to be their time to shine and compete with the frontrunners. Their star driver Fernando Alonso had praised the team’s aerodynamic package, which was designed by ex-Red Bull designer Peter Prodromou.

However, it was not the miracle shot that Alonso had hoped for, and while another sixth place finish in the championship was better, the team knew that they needed to redouble their efforts to be competitive again.

The Spaniard left at the end of 2018, when their sixth place position was largely down to Alonso’s ability to drag a result out of the car that it did not deserve, such as in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, when he finished in seventh despite having two flat tires on the first lap.

In light of the situation they found themselves in, McLaren hired ex-Ferrari engineer Pat Fry to replace Prodromou on a temporary basis as they eyed up Toro Rosso’s chief designer James Key. Fry designed the brand-new MCL34 and the 2019 car exceeded their low expectations.

They had a brand new driver lineup of rookie Lando Norris and a youthful but experienced Carlos Sainz Jr., which brought the team a breath of fresh air after the pressure that Alonso being in the team had caused the outfit.

By March of 2019, Key had joined the team after taking his enforced gardening leave from Toro Rosso, and in May, Brown completed the managerial changes by bringing Porsche engineer Andreas Seidl as team principal to manage trackside operations.

Seidl brought a focused calm to the team, which allowed them to go from strength to strength from the drivers, engineers and mechanics, elevating their competitiveness in terms of identifying the problems from 2018 and providing a much-needed step forward for 2019.

After finishing in fourth place last year, it was going to be a challenge to better that. But it was clear after preseason testing that Ferrari were slow and that there was a big opportunity for McLaren to finish in third. However, with Racing Point and Renault taking big steps forward, this was going to be no walk in the park.

The MCL35 was another step up from 2019, as it was a more efficient car and more nimble with more downforce.

Not only that, but after struggling more than his teammate in 2019, Norris stepped up to the plate this season. The Brit claimed a maiden podium finish at the first race in the Austrian Grand Prix and Sainz secured a career-high second place finish in the Italian Grand Prix.

But it was the team’s consistency that was vital, as Sainz beat Norris by just eight points (105-97) and Norris got the better of Sainz in qualifying (9-8) this season, with an average of just 0.044 seconds between them.

After Sunday’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix saw them secure third place in the constructor standings, Seidl stated the following.

"“We did it! P3 in the Constructors’ Championship. Congratulations and well done to the entire team, here in Abu Dhabi and back home at the MTC. Together with our drivers and our colleagues from Renault, they coped very well with the pressure to deliver a clean weekend and an excellent performance that helped us outscore our competitors. What an outstanding result at the end of a very challenging and difficult season.”"

Since the big wakeup call in 2018, McLaren have made huge progress with managerial changes, technical changes, driver changes and a change of approach within the team.

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So while the team were not immediately fast when they switched to Renault power and are still not yet fighting for the world championship, the change from Honda to Renault allowed the team to make the necessary changes to put them on the path back to becoming world champions in the near future as they move to Mercedes power in 2021.