How the pieces are falling into place for McLaren

F1

Lando Norris's Imola podium is the latest strong result for McLaren and as team boss Andreas Seidl told Adam Cooper, the team is feeling confident of a return to the F1 summit

Lando Norris, 2021 Imola GP

McLaren has improved tenfold since the Honda years of the hybrid era

DPPI

We’ve only had a sample of two races in 2021 thus far, but the early indications are that McLaren has a decent shot at retaining the third place that it earned last season.

It won’t be straightforward, because Ferrari is right there too. An old rivalry looks set to be revived throughout the season, even if the title and race wins are not at stake. AlphaTauri has the potential to join the battle too, and over a 23-race season, it’s still possible that Aston Martin and Alpine could gain some momentum.

For the moment McLaren has been the standout team of the season. It’s a far cry from three or four years ago, when what was anticipated to be a magical combination of Fernando Alonso and Honda proved to be anything but, and the Woking outfit staggered from one crisis to another.

The team has been on the recovery road since then, and it’s not been easy. But bit-by-bit the pieces have fallen into place, and now there’s a real buzz around the team. The sight of Lando Norris running ahead of Lewis Hamilton for many laps at Imola was a significant one.

Norris had to cede second place in the end, but the fact that the youngster was there on the podium in third, on merit at the end of a fraught afternoon for everyone, showed just how far the team has come.

Ditching Honda and going with Renault for 2018 was a big decision, and in retrospect, it’s easy to say that it was a poorly-timed move after three seasons of development pain. Certainly, the team would now be in a much better position financially had it still been Honda’s works partner, and not paying for customer engines.

However at the time, it made sense to start fresh. The subsequent switch to Mercedes for 2021 – a move that caught everyone, not least Renault, by surprise – was a great strategic move.

Andreas Seidl, McLaren, 2021 Imola GP

Andreas Seidl has overseen a drastic reversal in fortunes for the team

Florent Gooden / DPPI

It was inspired by Andreas Seidl, who was head-hunted by Zak Brown as team principal and joined in May 2019. He has proved to be an inspired choice. Former boss of the mighty Porsche WEC effort, he had been hiding in plain sight as a potential F1 team leader. McLaren had the foresight to snap him up when many others could have benefited from his input.

He has done a superb job, inspiring confidence on those around him, and making all the right calls, including the decision to join the Mercedes camp. He’s also great with drivers – don’t forget that with Porsche at Le Mans he had to manage nine of them.

The Norris/Carlos Sainz combination of 2019-’20 worked better than anyone could imagine, both men fitting into a new relaxed, upbeat image that the team has been able to propagate. In terms of personality Daniel Ricciardo is the perfect replacement for Sainz, with the bonus of bringing that vital race-winning experience with him.

As the only team changing power units for 2021, in the middle of a cost-saving freeze on development, McLaren faced quite a challenge. And yet everything has gone smoothly.

“That is a great achievement from everyone who was involved in setting up this new partnership,” says Seidl. “With everything we have seen so far, we have been very happy. It’s great for us as a team together with a great driver line-up that we are having that we have the championship-winning powertrain now the back of our car.

“Why? Because it clearly tells us where we stand as a team, and where we still have to improve as a team, which is still quite a lot. But it’s good to have these references within the team, and we have a clear plan in place, how we want to achieve the next steps in order to be back fighting for victories in some years. And that’s why I’m very happy with the switch.”

We tend to focus too much on comparing performance across the four F1 power units. The fact is that they have converged over the last couple of years in terms of outright grunt, and many more factors are at play.

“In terms of power, seeing also upgrades that happened, for example, on the Honda side, due to the stability of the regulations also, I think they’re all quite close together nowadays,” says Seidl. “I don’t think that these differences are as big as they have been in the past.

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“But in the end, it’s also not just about power, it’s about package, it’s about reliability, it’s about the usage of the power units also during the course of the weekend. And having again, as I said before, the championship-winning powertrain here in the back of our car is a good thing to have.”

Like all the other teams McLaren has an eye on the massive development programme for 2022, which has to be conducted under the new budget cap restrictions. Seidl says his team will continue to improve the current car.

“The target is clear, we want to bring more performance to the car. Plus, we want to understand our current package better and better, from race-to-race, in order to extract maximum performance. The big challenge this year is how long do you actually want to keep developing this year’s car? When do you fully switch to next year’s car?

“That’s a decision we have to make within the team, pretty much live, depending also on how the next races go. Because as I said several times we want to definitely have a good season also this year, we want to be competitive.

“It’s important to keep the positive momentum up on our side, and we definitely want to be in a position again to fight for this P3 with our competitors this year.”

It’s going to be a close contest: “This battle we’re in, it’s all within one to three tenths. And as we have seen also in the last two years, that is nothing in the end. It can change so quickly, depending on track characteristics, ambient conditions, tyre selection, etc.

“So for us it’s simply important to keep this respect up for all of our competitors as we always do, it’s important to simply focus on ourselves, trying to extract more performance out of our package, and then hopefully be in a position again to fight for this P3.”

Lando Norris, 2021 Imola GP

Lando Norris has emerged as a star at McLaren as the team returns to the top

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Ricciardo is an important part of the longer-term strategy, and he brings that extra knowledge that comes with being a seven-time Grand Prix winner.

“It is clear with his 10 years of experience in F1 he has a clear view on certain things on the operational side,” says Seidl. “Also in terms of what he needs from a car in order to go faster. And that’s obviously something we are benefiting from every day we work with him.

“In terms of personality, character, you all know him as well. He’s a very positive guy, which is obviously also important. For me, these guys are the heroes of this – of the sport. Also within the team everyone is looking up to them.

“An F1 season is intense for every single member of the team, the sun is not always shining, you have some difficult moments as well. And then it’s even more important that you have two positive guys that go in the garage in the morning again and say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s go again, let’s fight back.’

“I can clearly see that in terms of personality, character, that he made the next step”

“And that’s something I’m very happy with, seeing that from both of our guys, Lando and Daniel, this positivity, which is very, very important. It helps me also a lot in order to have this right spirit within the team that is so important.”

Like the other top drivers who have new seats this year, Ricciardo is still getting fully up to speed. In Bahrain he was hampered by aero damage after a first lap hit from Pierre Gasly, and in Imola he received a team call to let Norris by, a message that was painful for him but with which he complied.

“We have a clear agreement with both drivers and within the team that we will always make decisions that ensure that we maximise the result for the team,” says Seidl.

“We let our drivers race freely, but if we see that they run into each other on track, and if we judge it as one driver having a superior pace at that moment compared to the other driver, we make the decision to swap.

“In general we will always make sure for both drivers that in the end these two guys can battle it out on track. But again, if we think that in order to maximise team result a swap makes sense, than we do it.”

The eventual podium finish showed that it was a good call, and was further proof that in his third season Norris is maturing nicely.

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“The most obvious thing for me is obviously the lap times he’s putting in consistently,” says Seidl. “Which is the most important thing for me, as I said many, many times. Because if these lap times don’t come, I can’t fix it, it has to come from these guys.

“But in the end these lap times are also result of the hard work he has put in together with his team, together with our engineering team, over the winter, in order to learn from his second season in F1 last year, and in order to digest it in the right way, and make the right conclusions, and come back this year clearly being in a position to make the next step.

“And I can clearly see that also in terms of personality, character, that he made the next step, which is also normal for these young guys. It’s also what you would expect from these guys, because they need to make these steps in their early years if they want to become top drivers.”

Crucially Seidl isn’t getting too excited by a third place. Red Bull and Mercedes are currently in a class of their own, and McLaren is still far from being the mighty title-contending team that it was as recently as the Hamilton era.

However, everything is going in the right direction. The 2022 rules, and F1’s ongoing focus on reining in budgets, provide some hope that the next step can be made.

“If you look at the two guys that have been in the end in front of us, they are the reference in this sport, together with their teams, at the moment,” says Seidl.

“Therefore it is very, very good to finish in P3. Obviously a lot was happening in that race, and it’s important also to not again get carried away now with this result, if you look at how quickly Max [Verstappen] could drive away in this last stint. Then you see that we still have a lot of work to do.

“But overall what was simply very encouraging to see in qualifying and in the race was that it’s a great confirmation for us again that the entire team, together with our colleagues from Mercedes, over the winter did a great job. And I can only thank really every single member of the team for doing this great job.

“We made a great step forward again with the car. We have a competitive car, which is encouraging, because that’s obviously important in order to keep this positive momentum up. And that’s key also, making these steps in order to get back to the front one day again in F1.”