Formula 1’s second longest win drought ended at the Italian Grand Prix, when Daniel Ricciardo scored an emotionally charged victory – McLaren’s first since the end of 2012. Even in his first season with McLaren it has been a quite painful road for Ricciardo to reach this peak. Six months have felt like an age as he continued to struggle to adapt to the peculiar handling characteristics of his new team’s car. But Ricciardo’s wait to crack the code is nothing like what McLaren has gone through in the nine years between its most recent F1 wins.
Since McLaren re-established itself as ‘best of the rest’ in 2019 it’s been clear that it had learned a lot of lessons. Rightly so given it made a lot of mistakes: completely changing its car concept for the last year of a rules cycle in 2013, committing to a complicated and negative technical structure, reuniting with Honda and then piling the blame on its underperforming engine partner, then discovering the extent of its own shortcomings once it split from Honda and entered a brief stint with Renault in 2018.
Over those years McLaren had become a bit of a bully, too. It almost couldn’t accept that it was in the wrong and when Honda failed to produce the engine everybody expected, McLaren and Fernando Alonso made it clear where the problem was. That just set the team up for an even bigger fall.
But there was an important change behind the scenes. Remember that by the end of 2018, McLaren was struggling to beat Williams to avoid having the slowest car in F1. Then the next year it was a regular top 10 contender. That doesn’t happen without something significant shifting. Under the corporate leadership of Zak Brown, McLaren gradually owned up to its failings and through 2018 this turned into action. The senior management changed (Eric Boullier left and the structure was revised) and an emphasis on long-term planning became clear. Andreas Seidl was hired as team principal, James Key as technical director. A year later Seidl convinced McLaren’s shareholders they needed to build a brand new windtunnel and simulator. Imagine trying to sell them on that a year earlier when the team was a mess… But it was a mark of the faith the powers-that-be had in the new-look McLaren that the request was granted. In fact McLaren has once again become a team that engenders a lot of confidence in its potential both inside the team and to the outside world.
That was evident long before Ricciardo’s victory. It was clear in a lot of obvious things: the points totals, the ‘best of the rest’ finishes and the return of podium finishes. But it was also clear in less heralded (but equally important) things: the humility the team had developed, the acceptance that there was an awful lot to improve to match F1’s new best teams, and the awareness that it would take a long time to do that.
McLaren essentially switched its mindset from a team that felt it was a sleeping giant to one that realised it had actually diminished in stature. Crucially though the raw ingredients were still there to rebuild. Brown, Seidl and Key – a modern-day McLaren dream team – have so far done an excellent job to pull the good pieces together and identify where there are limitations.
There seems to be a genuine belief within McLaren now that the team’s hierarchy knows it is doing and knows what the team needs. Not that long ago this seemed like an organisation that could fall to in-fighting and finger-pointing very quickly. It seems to have quickly transformed the culture and made McLaren’s workforce buy into the bigger vision.
We’re seeing the results of that on-track and off it. McLaren is a more open, warmer team now, decked out in papaya orange and (finally) back to winning ways again. Sure, there is a way to go before McLaren can be a proper championship-challenging force – maybe not until 2024, when it will finally benefit from the new windtunnel – but it looks like a team that is capable of becoming that force.
This is a very different team to the one that turned into a gamechanging behemoth under Ron Dennis and then declined in the modern era. It needed to be. Having failed to move with the times, McLaren began to crumble under its own weight.
If it had continued to be tricked by its long, storied, successful past into thinking McLaren couldn’t possibly be flawed, this new era that looks so bright would not have been possible.