McLaren F1 Team Is No Longer Caught in the Middle

McLaren started Formula 1’s 2023 season slowly. It did not score a top-10 finish in the opening two events, but it has since emerged as the nearest challenger to dominant Red Bull.

“It’s been one hell of a turnaround,” said Oscar Piastri, one of McLaren’s drivers.

The team, which was fifth in 2022 with 159 points, conceded at the February launch of its 2023 car that it was unhappy with it. The team recognized that its design concept had limits and made big changes in its development team.

McLaren dropped its technical director, James Key, in March and will be splitting his role into a revised setup largely under the stewardship of Peter Prodromou. In January, Prodromou will be joined by David Sanchez, who will move over from Ferrari, where he was a chief engineer, and Rob Marshall, former Red Bull chief engineering officer, creating a three-way technical leadership team.

Under Prodromou, the car was significantly overhauled and was readied in Austria in June, with more refinements added for the races in Britain and Singapore during the summer. Those included redesigned internals, like the position of the radiator, a revised front wing and changes made to the aerodynamically critical floors.

Across the opening eight rounds, McLaren scored just 17 points. In the 13 races since the upgraded car was introduced, it has amassed 267 points, second to Red Bull, and is fourth in the standings.

The McLaren driver Lando Norris has finished on the podium seven times this year, six as runner-up.

“Since we brought this upgrade to Austria, I’ve been the second-highest scoring driver on the grid,” Norris said. “We’ve taken some massive steps forward and at the same time, considering we’re talking about fighting the Red Bull, I think it’s still a very, very good thing, for what we’ve achieved this year. For us to go from where we were [at the first race] in Bahrain to getting close and talking about fighting a Red Bull, I think are very good signs for us.”

Piastri has placed on the podium twice, making him the first rookie to finish in the top three of a race multiple times since Lewis Hamilton in 2007. Piastri was also first in Qatar’s sprint race, the shorter event that takes place at six Grands Prix.

“The first upgrades we put on really gave us an extra step in performance, and everything else since has done the same,” Piastri said. “I think the most encouraging thing has been that everything we’ve wanted to put on the car, and everything we’ve wanted to change with the car, has done what it’s supposed to. All the numbers that we expected [from simulations] were basically the same in real life.

“I think we’ve been able to show that in the second half of the year. The development and progress on the car side of things has been incredible.”

Competitors have noticed.

Esteban Ocon of Alpine, which is in sixth place, said McLaren had shown that it was possible to move out of the middle of the pack.

“To me it’s more like ‘Oh, they’ve done it, so it is possible to be doing that,’” he said. “So, fair play. Admiration for the work that they’ve done.

“And it is possible to get out of the midfield, because they’ve done so, so why not us, you know?”

McLaren’s resurgence has come during the first year of Andrea Stella’s leadership as team principal.

“Translating an Italian way of saying, ‘The blanket is a little short,’” Stella, an Italian, said of the car’s performance. “The work we are undertaking for next year is to make this blanket quite a bit bigger.”

McLaren’s improved performance has been complemented by sharper race operations and upgraded facilities. It made the fastest Formula 1 pit stop ever in October in Qatar, changing all four tires in just 1.80 seconds.

McLaren’s new wind tunnel, at its factory in Woking, England, became operational this summer and is being used to develop the 2024 car. Having the tunnel at its headquarters will improve efficiency, with car components no longer needing to be transported between there and the facility McLaren had been renting in Germany.

It is also a financial saving for McLaren in a cost-cap era in which teams must limit spending on their cars, meaning that money can be used elsewhere. A new composites facility has also recently opened, while a new simulator is being prepared.

McLaren has Formula 1’s youngest driver lineup in Norris, 24, and Piastri, 22. Piastri received a multiyear contract extension in September, and his attitude and levelheaded personality as a rookie have impressed McLaren. Norris, who is at the end of his fifth season, has flourished as the senior driver.

“I think now we’re slowly getting more and more comfortable with being at the front, and instead of referring to some of the other teams as the top teams, they’re our competitors now,” Piastri said.

Norris is confident that McLaren will continue to perform in 2024.

“We know we still have plenty more things to come next year,” he said. “So I’m excited. I don’t want to think of that just now, there’s no point thinking of it until next year, but I’ll be optimistic, and I believe we can do it as a team.”

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