A well-stocked trophy cabinet and a storied past give many of Formula One’s teams a rich heritage, but on race day old glories count for nothing. History is rightly respected but it does not buy lap time. McLaren, one of F1’s most successful teams, know this only too well. This season, as optimism for success fell apart in devastating fashion, they face an uphill struggle to prove they really are ready to rejoin the top table.
McLaren have assuredly already earned their honours. Only Ferrari have competed in F1 for longer and only Ferrari are more successful. Since Bruce McLaren made his team’s debut in 1966 at Monaco they have won 12 drivers’ and eight constructors’ titles. From 909 races they have won 183, numbers that have made them synonymous with F1. They are the tallies of which other teams can only dream.
The glory days, though, have seemed a distant memory for some time. The team last challenged for a championship in 2012. An engine partnership with Honda proved disastrous and they fell to ninth place in 2015 and 2017.
The fightback has been long and hard, but it has been successful. Until now. Last season, Daniel Ricciardo won at Monza, albeit aided by Max Verstappen ending his own and Lewis Hamilton’s race, but it was indicative of how competitive McLaren were. On an upward curve, they had placed third in the 2020 constructors’ championship, with Ferrari struggling. Lando Norris, who completed the one-two with Ricciardo in Monza, also took four podiums last season. This year, with the new regulations, there was genuine belief McLaren could threaten the big three.
At the season opener in Bahrain those hopes were shattered. Norris and Ricciardo qualified in 13th and 18th respectively, and finished in 15th and 14th. McLaren’s new dawn faded under the harsh glare of Sakhir’s floodlights.
Their form was not as bad as Bahrain suggested, an outlier compounded by losing time in testing, but they are far from where they want to be. For Norris, the 22-year-old British driver who joined the team in 2019 when they had already implemented major change and whose results were reflecting McLaren’s clear progress, their start to the season has been a sucker punch – the hardest to deal with of his career, he revealed in Imola.
“This year we had the most expectation and we underdelivered the most,” he said. “I felt like I was doing the best I have done and not feeling like we are getting the reward. The last two seasons we were rewarded when things went perfectly, now it is only a fifth or seventh even if it is perfect.”
Fifth is their best result so far and that came in Australia where the track suited their car and a Red Bull and a Ferrari failed to finish. But, as Norris acknowledged, they are up to as much as a second a lap off both those two leading teams.
Norris was in good spirits in the paddock at Imola despite his stern introduction to just how fickle a mistress F1 can be but he is not enjoying the experience. “This was a chance for us to take a bigger step up than we have in the past four years,” he said. “To not have done is so frustrating, I want to win, I want to be on the podium and when you drop away from that it’s frustrating.”
The car lacks downforce, an issue that will not be solved overnight. Norris cites “months” of work ahead making incremental steps but the team are convinced the car is fundamentally sound.
Zak Brown instituted structural and cultural changes when he became chief executive in 2018. James Key, the technical director who joined in 2019, described a fundamental tenet of “being very open with stuff and removing the blame cultures so people were free to talk and attack issues in a very sort of mature and open way”.
Norris, who has always been an exponent of building strong relationships within the team, of encouragement and motivation, believes McLaren can weather this storm. “There has not been any pointing fingers, or blame on whose fault it is,” he said. “There is none of that, they are motivated and excited to come up with ideas, everyone is working together, which is what you want to see in times like these.”
Crucially, Andreas Seidl, the team principal, praises the positive attitude of his drivers and their staunch determination in the face of disappointment. The German insists his team remain focused on their plan to challenge for wins over a three-year period as they build their infrastructure, including a wind tunnel.
“This was the first test of everything we have put in place the last two or three years,” he said. “I am very happy with how the entire team dealt with that challenge, the most important thing was to stay calm, that was my responsibility with Lando and Daniel, to analyse what happened, where we are and use the disappointment and switch it into motivation, to put a plan in place.”
These are without doubt testing times for McLaren and, as ever, history looms large over their efforts. It is both reminder and spur but no more than that. McLaren know it is the future that matters, the focus now is on turning their fortunes around.