This year’s British Grand Prix was never going to be a celebratory affair for McLaren. In their 52 years, the once mighty team have no experience of a slump of these proportions. At no point was Silverstone going to offer an unexpected return to form. But that it was here that they chose to instigate drastic measures to stop the rot proved the team could wait no longer.
Radical restructuring at the home grand prix is, as Ron Dennis would have it, highly suboptimal but the team are making tentative steps in the right direction in the view of John Barnard, the man who helped Dennis turn them round in the 1980s and earned the nickname Prince of Darkness for his troubles.
Before the race weekend began, McLaren announced their sporting director, Éric Boullier, had resigned and that they were restructuring. It had not been unexpected; they are going through their most unsuccessful period since Bruce McLaren took their first car to the track at Monaco in 1966. Eight constructors’ titles and 12 drivers’ followed, with 182 race wins. But they have not won since Brazil in 2012, have not had a podium since 2014 and have finished ninth, sixth and ninth in the constructors’ championship in the past three seasons.
There had been reports of dissatisfaction with management and change was inevitable. The team’s chief executive, Zak Brown, called it the start of a journey and has already warned it will be a long one.
There are parallels with another period in the team’s history. In 1980 they had also been in a slump. McLaren finished ninth in the constructors’ championship and had not won a race since James Hunt’s victory in Japan in 1977.
When Dennis took charge in September 1980 he brought with him the talented young designer Barnard. He is perhaps best known for his pioneering work, introducing the carbon-fibre composite chassis at McLaren and the electronic gearshift operated by paddles while at Ferrari. But his role at changing the way McLaren worked was every bit as revolutionary.
“It wasn’t a quick task when Ron and I came in,” he says. “It took several years to settle down. To get everybody pulling in the right direction. I was called the Prince of Darkness, that’s the nickname I got because I had to change the system. I was young enough to go head to head with anybody at that time.”
Barnard, now 72, has recalled his experiences with McLaren and Ferrari to great effect in his book The Perfect Car but, speaking in the buildup to the British Grand Prix, he emphasises it was at McLaren that the real systemic change was required.
“It didn’t go down well,” he says. “Because there was a way of doing things that meant the mechanics on the shop floor had effectively a great deal of technical power. The drawing office did the basics and then much of the detail was left to be done on the shop floor. I didn’t like that. I wanted control of everything on the car because without that I couldn’t steer it forward.”
The restructuring may have made Barnard unpopular but it worked. With the MP4/1 car, Dennis and Barnard won a race in their first season – John Watson taking the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. By 1984 they were utterly dominant, with drivers’ titles for Niki Lauda that year, when he and Alain Prost won 12 of the 16 races, and then for Prost in 1985 and 1986 .
One of the key factors in their resurgence, provided by Barnard, was technical leadership. He believes this is absolutely crucial to success and that it has been sorely lacking at McLaren in recent years.
“I don’t see anyone running it technically now and I haven’t seen that for a few years,” he says. “They have separate aerodynamic groups working on different parts of the car. If you don’t have a technical leader then what happens is all the different areas say: ‘It’s not my problem, it’s their problem.’ This is what happens with organisations as big as this. Somebody has to sew it all together, see where they are, and then you have to be honest with yourselves.”
The team had three people leading the design and development of the current car and Brown has conceded the result was “we don’t have a good race car” but insisted the problem has been compounded by a lack of consistent leadership since 2012.
“We have come to the conclusion that the way we have been doing it has not worked,” he said. “In companies you need clear leadership and decision-making. We effectively had co-CEOs of a race car and that is not a structure that works.” Brown has strongly intimated that one of the next steps they will take is to appoint a technical director.
This, Barnard believes, is required on what is going to be a long and difficult journey but, while this may well be a weekend the team will want to forget, it may also be the first step in a return to the top.
“I don’t think they can have the right structure until they have the right people,” he says. “They are beginning to understand that. Until they find the right people they are not going to go forward. Zak Brown has said it is not going to be a quick thing. It’s not, it’s like turning an oil tanker.”