Battered and broken

McLaren is floundering. But who is to blame and is there any way back to its past glories?

It all began to unravel a long time ago for McLaren – in terms of it being a top-rank, title-contending F1 team, at any rate. Today it operates on about half the budget of the best-funded team and laps more than 1.5sec per lap off the pace. The implications that can be drawn from the early races of the 2018 season suggest that it’s going to be a long, hard climb back to the top.

McLaren’s loss of works Mercedes engine status happened eight years ago (partly hastened by the Spygate affair a couple of years previous to that) and it last won races six years ago. Loss of form spilt down into reduction of revenue and further loss of form, but the Honda partnership was going to put all that right – except, of course, it didn’t. The Japanese manufacturer was ill-equipped to conquer the hybrid F1 formula and for three seasons supplied McLaren with uncompetitive and unreliable engines. But within that sorry convoluted mess, there remained a stubborn belief that this was still the McLaren of old, merely stymied by lack of horsepower – and that as soon as that was corrected we’d see once again the colossus of a team that had lit up the tracks during a decade-long race-winning spree, book-ended by the world titles of Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton.

The switch from Honda to Renault – putting McLaren on power parity with Red Bull – has revealed that belief to be wildly optimistic. The MCL33 is usually something in excess of 1sec per lap slower than the RB14 and didn’t make the Q3 part of qualifying until round five, Spain. The drivers say it’s quite nicely balanced – but just slow. It’s on a similar level of performance to Renault, Haas and Force India, but never at the front even of that group, let alone challenging the big three.

The stopwatch had revealed the reality and, shortly after a particularly embarrassing performance in front of the team’s majority shareholders in Bahrain for race two, heads began to roll as a perhaps long-overdue process of self-examination began.

The following Tuesday, the first part of a restructuring plan was announced. The commercial and racing responsibility between Zak Brown (who became CEO of the newly created McLaren Racing) and Eric Boullier was more clearly defined. Brown was acutely aware that he had just convinced the ‘Bahraini’ board (it also includes the Saudi Mansour Ojjeh) to invest an extra, unbudgeted $100m per year to exit the Honda deal early and replace the income it was bringing – only for that change to be arguably revealed as performance-neutral.

At the board’s home race the McLaren was the slowest car through the speed trap – by an embarrassingly big margin. Making it all the more acute was that the Honda-powered Toro Rosso was a full 7kph quicker – and significantly faster over the Bahrain lap, too. In the race the inexperienced Pierre Gasly finished a fine fourth for Honda, three places ahead of the great Fernando Alonso in the McLaren-Renault. The little Toro Rosso team was achieving what could reasonably have been expected of McLaren – best of the rest after the big three. This came hot on the heels of a very troubled, unreliable McLaren pre-winter test programme, where the car had to run with holes cut into its bodywork to prevent overheating, as Gasly with the Honda motor had completed the third-highest number of laps, behind only the Mercedes pair.

THE STOPWATCH DOESN’T lie and those numbers revealed that, relative to the competition, McLaren’s technical prowess was not at the level it had believed. For three years an uncompetitive engine had allowed it to hide behind the assumption that its aero and design remained cutting edge. But even some of the Honda’s problems can be seen to have been rooted in McLaren’s dominant status in the partnership. The ‘size zero’ concept of engine – with the turbo in the vee – was to maximise the aerodynamics but played its part in limiting the power of the engine. With size zero eventually abandoned in year three of the partnership, a vibration problem that limited the turbo’s speed could have been significantly eased had Honda been allowed just a little more space. It was as if McLaren was demanding ultimate standards of performance from an organisation that needed time to grow into the challenge of the hybrid formula – while failing to provide anything like ultimate standards itself.

So after three years of unreliable McLaren-Hondas that were slow on the straights but competitively quick through slow- to medium-speed corners, the 2018 McLaren-Renault was revealed as slow on the straights but competitively quick through slow- to medium-speed corners… The car’s aero efficiencies were clearly ill judged, with way too high a cost in drag for the given range of downforce, something that might well have been true of the Honda years, too. The extra straight-line speed achieved by use of DRS was less than any other car and at Baku there was another little tell-tale of how wrong that trade-off in the car’s conception had been. Alonso was involved in a first-lap skirmish that punctured two of his tyres, ripped off a great section of the front of the floor and punched a hole in the rear, costing significant downforce. Yet with a set of new tyres he rejoined the race – and found that the car was now vastly quicker down the straights, no longer so constrained by drag that wasn’t giving enough corresponding downforce. “It was a good upgrade,” he said later, only partly joking.

How had the technical team so misjudged things? For Brown, watching one of the early races from the operations room at the factory, one thing became apparent as he asked various questions of the team in the garage. There were far too many answers of, ‘I don’t know, that’s their department.’ It was clear that a ‘silo’ mentality (inward-looking, resistant to sharing of information) had built up around each of the three-pronged technical leadership of the team – Tim Goss, Matt Morris and Peter Prodromou. As Brown investigated further, he found that in some cases physical barriers had even been erected between the aero, engineering and design groups. Goss was the first casualty, moved aside between the Shanghai and Baku races and subsequently leaving the company.

This technical trio had been put in place after Paddy Lowe departed as technical director in 2013 and the shared responsibility between three ambitious engineers had clearly not gelled in the way originally hoped. Five years of intra-departmental competition was the background to the creation of the MCL33, a car without the necessary overarching technical vision behind it, resulting in an inappropriate set of performance trade-offs. As well as the departmental competition, there was also the culture that the Honda years had bred of decoupling McLaren’s responsibility from Honda’s in the performance deficit – as opposed to actually living by the ‘win as a team, lose as a team’ mantra that Ron Dennis used to espouse.

Ultimately, it was a failure of management. But whose management? At the micro level, arguably Boullier’s – since joining early in 2014 he has been the level of management immediately above the destructive rivalry between those technical departments and either hadn’t recognised it or had failed to do anything to intervene. That’s certainly the feeling within the team at the moment and his role there as racing director is under big pressure. But even that is indicative of a deeper-rooted cultural problem. Boullier seems powerless to prevent himself falling into the same trap as his engineers of protecting his territory against an organisation looking for blame rather than contributing towards moving everything forwards. In reality this is a bigger problem than just one man. It’s about management and leadership from the very top – and this is where the damage of McLaren’s turbulent boardroom history of the last few years has become evident.

MCLAREN OF THE golden years was run as the embodiment of Ron Dennis’s vision. With the financial muscle of his partner Mansour Ojjeh quietly but powerfully behind him, the two formed a great partnership. That vision was a team that aspired to be the best at everything, to be dominant. Whatever was needed would be provided and the big money backers came flocking. The team grew quickly as Dennis became the first team principal to understand the scale of F1’s expansion in the late 1980s/early ’90s. It became a corporation, requiring a much more formal structure to operate. It combined that corporate horsepower with the competitive zeal of a top racing team and became the standard by which all others were judged. Superior resource fuelled McLaren and it was all directed with a unifying purpose and vision. It created a certain arrogance, a ‘we are McLaren, therefore we are right’ attitude, but one that could be largely backed up.

But that hubris played a part not only in the loss of such valuable mavericks as Adrian Newey and the rupturing damage of Spygate, but also in the aftermath of the falling out between Dennis and Ojjeh. As the former partners became bitter enemies locked in a fight for control of the team, so over time McLaren was left to run itself without that unifying vision, without the aggressive pursuit of cutting-edge technology, and so personal and departmental rivalries took hold. That damaging battle lasted more than five years and in the meantime McLaren steadily drifted back from the front, the income gradually dwindled. But still that arrogant belief remained – albeit now without the goods to back it up. Honda’s three-year struggle allowed that reality to be denied, but the direct comparison to the identically powered Red Bull has exposed it.

Into that tricky narrative walked first Boullier and, in November 2016, Zak Brown as the ultimate boss (albeit reporting to the majority shareholding Bahraini group). They’ve each inherited a cultural problem. Boullier arrived from a much more straightforward racing team background and has perhaps been poorly equipped to deal with root causes of the peculiarly McLaren problems, while Brown has arrived as an experienced commercial and racing operator but without a technical background. It would be unusual if they’d each been able to change a culture instantly.

All of that said, with an operating budget of about $180 million compared to $300 million-plus for Mercedes and Ferrari, McLaren is approximately where it might be expected to be on the grid. It has approximately 700 staff, about 200 less than the top teams. Mercedes deploys three times as many people on, for example, suspension design. Does McLaren have shareholders that could provide a top team budget? Yes, of course it does. But why would that group loosen the purse strings further to a management team that has just failed to deliver what was expected after the buying out of the Honda deal?

Brown, in getting a handle on the internal competitions that have resulted in the sub-par MCL33, has made the first step to McLaren’s recovery by recognising the problem. But it’s fallen so far that even if he has the required depth and long-term vision, it will take years to rebuild.

On the positive side, with Liberty and the FIA going all-out to impose a $150 million cost cap on teams from 2021 onwards, in theory that would bring the front of the field back down to McLaren levels of spend. In the meantime, McLaren is very much a work in progress and a testimony to the destructive power of hubris.