'McLaren should focus on Daniel Ricciardo', says John Watson

John Watson knows a thing or two about Woking’s best export, having spent just over five seasons with McLaren, winning four grands prix. Here’s his assessment

McLaren MCL36

The rules reset has given teams a fresh base to start with, and hopefully it can suit both McLaren drivers this season

McLaren

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McLaren is in a transitional phase and definitely seems to be on the up again after a period of being relatively uncompetitive. In some ways it’s similar to the situation I was in with the team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, though you can’t make direct comparisons because the technology and expenditure have changed so much – as, indeed, has the whole of grand prix racing. Back then, most teams were effectively privateers running Cosworth engines, without a great deal of the major manufacturer input we see today. It’s far more complex.

John Watson

It’s hard to know exactly what the pecking order will be as there has been a significant regulatory reset for the new season, but given their respective resources it’s hard to imagine that Mercedes and Red Bull won’t still be at the front or thereabouts. After a decent 2021, I guess McLaren’s objective is to challenge Ferrari in the top three while making the most of any opportunities that arise, as it did last year at Monza. It could have won in Russia, too, but for a touch of inexperience on Lando Norris’s part. But I hear Ferrari has been producing some spectacular horsepower figures, so McLaren might end up trying to defend fourth place in the constructors’.

During the 2010s, McLaren dropped away from the front. It didn’t help that Lewis Hamilton left at the end of 2013, then three years with Honda from 2015 failed to produce the kind of results I’d expected – I honestly expected that partnership to be challenging for titles by that third season and have no idea why it didn’t, but the renewed partnership with Mercedes has proved beneficial. Last year I was a bit disappointed to see a driver as good as Daniel Ricciardo apparently struggling with the McLaren, particularly early in the season. I guess Lando came into F1 having never raced for any other team and managed to adapt, but if you have a top-liner with a proven reputation such as Daniel, then the problem is unlikely to be with him – you don’t suddenly lose the ability to drive. The team needs to find a way to adapt its car so that Daniel can show what we all know he can do, because the pressure will simply build if performances remain below par – I’ve been through it! It’s not always easy for an established driver such as Daniel to adjust his style, but I accept that it’s also hard for a team to change direction when everything is so aerodynamically dependent and the numbers from the wind tunnel might have sent the engineers in a particular direction. They tend to look at downforce and efficiency without necessarily considering the human element and all the associated emotions.

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Now that every team is starting from a fresh technical platform, I hope McLaren can accommodate what Daniel has to offer. He’s a proven winner who is capable of adding many more victories to his tally, but first of all he needs to be able to drive the bloody thing.

Lando has been doing a very good job, but his time will come. Right now the focus should be on getting Daniel up to full speed and I feel he should be leading the car technically, though I’m not sure that has been the case. Look at Red Bull – its design philosophy seems to be built around creating a car Max Verstappen finds comfortable to drive, but Sergio Pérez never looked truly at ease in it last year – especially during qualifying.

You don’t want to be consciously sacrificing your second driver, but both McLaren and Red Bull seemed to have cars with a knife-edge operating window – and there’s always a risk that you’ll be throwing away a potential haul of points if one of the two team-mates is unable to adapt. I hope the new rules will enable McLaren to come up with a car that allows both drivers to perform to their maximum.


John Watson was a McLaren driver from 1979-83