McLaren's Mission Impossible: shaking up racing in spirit of Bruce


Under Zak Brown's leadership, McLaren has once more taken an adventurous view of the motor sport world – can it have the same success as under Bruce?

4 McLaren F1 Daniel Ricciardo US GP

McLaren has aimed to shake up the form book with multi-category approach

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The Double: it’s one of the toughest physical tests in sport, never mind racing.

It starts with a full 200 laps of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – most of which will be spent north of 200mph – against 32 other fearsome IndyCar competitors in the ‘500’.

Then it’s onto a private jet – via a chopper to add to the Mission Impossible atmosphere –  and a 700-mile zoom down to North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, NASCAR’s longest event. And you have to win that too, if you can survive 600 miles of rubbin’ and racin’ against 40-something other unsympathetic stock car rivals.

Only four drivers in history have attempted The Double, the last being Kurt Busch in May 2014, and none have managed to win at either event. It has lain dormant for nine years, partly because these over-audacious stunts became slightly passé in professional motor sport, and partly because few competitors are capable of taking on a challenge that demands exceptional driving ability and physical stamina.

Kyle larson NASCAR Indianapolis 2022

Larson has eyes on 2014 Indy 500 challenge


But a decade on from the last attempt, there will be a new challenger. Kyle Larson, dominant 2021 Cup champion and the pre-eminent NASCAR talent of his generation, will take on the challenge in May 2024. Arguably America’s top racing prospect, Larson’s involvement is less of a surprise than the IndyCar outfit he’s teaming up with: McLaren.

After spending the 2010s mired in an F1 furrow, McLaren is stretching its ambitions again, turning back to the innovation, commercial nous and transatlantic focus that its founder Bruce embodied when the team was formed decades ago. This time led by Zak Brown, it is redefining racing teams in the same way.

In addition to Larson, McLaren has three full-time IndyCar entries, has taken over Mercedes’ Formula E concern and launched an Extreme E team, in addition the main Formula 1 interest – and it still has the potential of a WEC Hypercar entry.

Kurt Busch 2014 Indy 500

Busch was last person to attempt Double Duty in 2014

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Participation is all very well, but Brown has his eyes on emulating the incredible achievements of Bruce by fully succeeding at each level, even though he is yet to tick that off in any of the series.

IndyCar squad’s racing director Gavin Ward – formerly of Red Bull in F1 – said that the appeal of simultaneously scaling motor sport mountains old and new mirrored the lure of The Double for Larson, who has already won at the highest level in stock cars, dirt racing and sports cars in the Daytona 24 Hours: “Kyle’s ability and desire to compete across so many disciplines of motor racing is as rare today as it is refreshing.”

From the archive

That last word has been at the centre of everything McLaren has done under Brown, attracting fans and sponsors alike.

The F1 team has gradually risen up the scale during his tenure, from propping up the grid in the years from 2015-16 to fighting for best of the rest over the last few of seasons – doing so with some of the most engaging drivers on the grid – Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo. This has been in relative tandem with McLaren papaya gradually seeping into the rest of the motor sport world.

Subsequently, a huge number of new fans have become emotionally involved with the team through its social media output – particularly its behind-the-scenes YouTube series Unboxed – much of which is centred around Norris, with its equivalents in IndyCar and Extreme E.

McLaren looking beyond F1

This retro reboot on how to go racing all started with a joke made by Brown in 2017, not long after he had taken the reins at McLaren, which was then using Honda F1 engines.

The Californian quipped to Fernando Alonso about entering the 2017 Indy 500, in Brown’s words “he bit”. The resulting entry, with Andretti Autosport in a Honda-powered IndyCar, revealed the potential for McLaren to expand.

Fernando Alonso 2017 McLaren Indy 500

Alonso 2017 500 attempt represented first of its new adventures

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The most highly anticipated 500 entry in recent memory saw hundreds of thousands tune in just for the Spaniard’s IndyCar rookie orientation programme – a testing session which usually registers more than a mild flicker in motor sport’s consciousness.

Alonso qualified an incredible fifth, led for 27 laps, and was running near the front when his race ended prematurely in engine failure, but it was enough to set the tone for McLaren’s future involvement in categories outside F1.

Two years later though, it hit a wrong note back at the Brickyard, when a McLaren Indy 500 entry, assisted by Carlin, ended in a non-qualify for Alonso. Brown revealed a string of mistakes, including painting the car the wrong shade of orange, lacking a steering wheel, and making errors when converting inches to centimetres.

Despite this, it pushed on Stateside and three years later McLaren has its own IndyCar team (after joining up with the Schmidt Peterson squad), pushing to be part of the big three with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.

Over the past three seasons its driver Pato O’Ward has emerged as one of IndyCar’s leading prospects, winning four races and challenging for the title in ’21 and ’22 in arguably the world’s most competitive racing series.

McLaren’s campaign for this year’s title begins today with the launch of its 2023 colour scheme — a three-day publicity event that underlines how Brown and co seem to be doing more than the rest of the IndyCar grid combined in getting people excited about the championship. That’s no mean feat for a series which has had the same car for over ten years and announced a 2023 calendar which is identical to last year’s (new Detroit location aside).

From the archive

O’Ward has been given several F1 young driver runouts as a result of a bet filmed with Brown in McLaren’s historic old IndyCar motor home, stipulating that he could have an GP test if he won an IndyCar race in 2021, which he duly did – twice.

The McLaren boss made a similar bet with Daniel Ricciardo in 2021 about scoring a podium – doing so with a win in the team’s Monza 1-2 – meaning the Aussie got to drive his hero Dale Earnhardt’s 1984 Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR at Austin later that season.

The realisation of both wagers brought huge excitement and fan engagement – and Brown did it again by agreeing live on Sky Sports F1 during coverage of the inaugural Miami GP grid for Mario Andretti to drive a contemporary McLaren F1 car, the 1978 champion ultimately doing so at Laguna Seca and Circuit of the Americas.


McLaren moves into electric racing

The Californian has recently spotted more opportunities to expand the brand of Bruce’s old team, further adding to the explorative spirit, but also bringing risks with it.

Brown has overseen the takeover of Mercedes’ Formula E concern – former Silver Arrow simulator and test driver Jake Hughes was promoted to a race seat and immediately repaid the faith with a third in qualifying and a fifth on his race debut, but in these early days of the venture, there are questions over a series which has well-documented reliability issues with its new Gen3 car and trouble engaging fans.

The same can be said of McLaren’s new Extreme E squad. The team showed itself to be immediately competitive in the hands of its two drivers, Tanner Foust – yet another engaging personality whose CV includes presenting Top Gear America – and Emma Gilmour, finishing the season with a second place in Uruguay.

Jake Hughes McLaren Formula E team Mexico

McLaren is now involved in Formula E and Extreme E too

Formula E

However, a burgeoning series – 2023 will be its third year – which has limited television coverage and only five events per season also brings with it significant potential pitfalls.

To be fair to Brown, the new electric ventures have been fool-proofed to a certain extent. With a background in sponsorship and marketing, Brown has a knack for spying chances to make racing happen. His latest link-up with Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project is another example of this, with the Middle Eastern state largely funding the two electric racing sections of McLaren.

If it doesn’t work out, it appears it won’t be of any great cost to McLaren.

No pioneering movements are without their setbacks though – in its 60th year, McLaren is still pushing on to new frontiers under Brown regardless. Can it match Bruce’s legacy?