Will the changes to McLaren’s technical structure move the team up the grid and finally give Lando Norris the truly competitive car that he deserves?
That’s the obvious hope of team bosses Zak Brown and Andrea Stella after they kicked out technical director James Key and created a new arrangement with three people sharing responsibilities across different areas.
A look at the team’s finishing position in the constructors’ championship tells its own story. In 2018, the first year after the disastrous Honda era, the team finished sixth. In the four seasons since Norris joined it has gone fourth, third, fourth, fifth.
To be fair with two competitive points-scoring drivers McLaren should have been fourth again last year, but nevertheless there have been few clear signs of genuine progress towards the front over those seasons. And this year has started with a car that at best appears to be the sixth or seventh in the pecking order: Piastri was eliminated in Q1 during qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, and Norris in Q2.
It’s been disappointing for everyone in the McLaren camp, but especially for someone with Norris’s talent and ambition, who has seen close pals and contemporaries like Charles Leclerc and George Russell winning races.
Norris has to be at the top of the list for all three of the established top teams should they want or need to hire someone from outside their ranks any time soon.
However he is contracted to McLaren until 2025, and thus he won’t be going anywhere. Nevertheless you couldn’t blame him if he felt a little frustrated about still fighting for scraps in his fifth season with the team. The new structure should bring renewed hope that McLaren can get it right.
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“I mean, I can’t really look elsewhere!,” he says when asked by Motor Sport if the recent technical shuffle has given him a boost.
“So that doesn’t change. I guess any driver on the grid wants to have confidence in the team. I don’t think anything necessarily changes my motivation. I’m motivated every weekend to do the best job I can.
“And I think one big driver is that I’m very critical of my own performances every weekend, when I’ve done a shit job, I’ll say I’ve done a shit job, even if I’m P2 or P1, I’ll still be a guy who is not happy being P1 because I didn’t do a good job. I motivate myself very easily every weekend, and I don’t need the team for the future to necessarily do that for me.
“But it’s a big confidence booster, when you know you have things to look forward to, when you have people in place or whatever. It maybe motivates you that last little bit to know that this is coming, and so forth and so on.
“It’s just confidence in the team, it doesn’t change how I necessarily go and drive every weekend when I get on track.”
So what are the changes? After spells with Force India, Sauber and AlphaTauri Key joined McLaren amid much fanfare in March 2019, and he has thus led the development of each car since then.
His job was to shake McLaren out of a sort of complacency that has set in, and that was fully revealed when the team didn’t make a huge step when it parted company with Honda, indicating that the power unit wasn’t entirely to blame for the team’s lack of form.
In parallel with that the team has been investing in much-needed infrastructure, including a wind tunnel that will finally come on stream this year.
Meanwhile in September and still on Key’s watch the team took a big step and decided to change tack with the concept of its 2023 contender. The call was made too late to be ready for the first race, so at the launch of the MCL60 we were told that we would see the real car at the fourth race in Baku.
It remains to be seen how good that version will be, but McLaren hasn’t given Key the benefit of the doubt, hence his exit just a few weeks after he appeared in team kit in Bahrain.
The team will now have three technical directors, namely Peter Prodromou (aerodynamics), Davide Sanchez (car concept and performance) and Neil Houldey (engineering and design).
The complication is that Sanchez has only recently left Ferrari and can’t join until January 2024, and until then Stella will be more deeply involved in technical matters, while team veteran Neil Oatley has been brought back from the wilderness of “other projects” to help with the transition.
It was Brown who kickstarted the review of the technical structure, taking advantage of the switch of team principals from Andreas Seidl to Stella to task the latter with reviewing everything from scratch. Brown realised that the team wasn’t making enough progress.
“Obviously, we started the year with some challenges in testing with the brake ducts,” the American says of last season. The car was okay. And then of course, we had our driver-related issues that we were working through, which kind of took the attention if you’d like, and kind of the headline.
“Meanwhile, kind of underneath the surface, I wasn’t happy with the pace of the development of the racing car. That was the second half of last year, if you’re going to look at the pace of development of some of the other teams where they started and where they ended, versus where we started and where we ended.
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“So you start having conversations and of course, we had a team principal change towards the end of the year, which allowed me the opportunity to be more aggressive in working with Andrea to give him the mandate of take a look at the team.
“And that’s exactly what he did. And obviously, him having been there meant he wasn’t starting from ground zero, and ultimately came up with a model that makes total sense to us, and those internally.”
Is it better to have one clear leader or a committee of three? Only time will tell, but intriguingly McLaren used the three-man approach as recently as 2015, when Stella came on board in an engineering capacity. That was subsequently abandoned as it wasn’t working – so why go back to something similar?
“I think the only common thing in that organisation and this one is the number three,” Stella insists. “The rest is completely different. At the time, which is when I joined McLaren in 2015, there were three technical directors. I think the separation of competence was very confusing. Even for internal people, it was quite difficult to understand, like who was doing what.
“And the first difference is that now we know exactly what the criterion are for this separation. We want in the structure that we have deployed to have clear leadership in relation to the three fundamental areas to make quick cars in modern F1, which is aerodynamics, car concept, and engineering.
“So we wanted to have this model clearly in place as a way of answering the question that Zak and I have shared right from day one, in my role as team principal, which was how do we create a performance-led organisation?”
Stella implies that under Key the best ideas were not necessarily coming to the fore.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding when it comes to decision making in F1, people think that you are there all the time with somebody making a decision. But in reality, it’s much more about creating competitive ideas, because this is what leads to natural decisions. This is the position in which we want to put McLaren in the future.
“What’s important is that we bring to the table performance ideas, that’s what we miss the most at McLaren right now.”
“We don’t want to be at a very comfortable table with somebody in charge making all the decisions, but very uncompetitive, in terms of the ideas we bring to the table. Or with the one actually being in charge kind of setting an upper limit to the level and the quality of the ideas the group generate.”
Ouch – that sounds like a clear dig at Key. Stella says the final choices were not made in a hurry.
“My attitude was actually, I want to be very open-minded,” he says. “I don’t want to rush into making decisions. I want to populate my mind with plenty of information. So I had many one-to-ones. I attended meetings, looked at the dynamics within the team with the eye of is this top class in F1?
“Is this answering the fundamental question, how do we build a performance-led organisation? And then it’s really been one of those where day after day, you kind of elaborate a little bit, many, many conversations with Zak, through these conversations, you get closer to what looks like a solution.”
Kicking out your technical director is no small matter, but Brown has shown in the past that he is willing to make big calls, such as leaving Honda (it seemed like a good idea at the time) or dumping Ricciardo. This is after all the Piranha Club.
“I mean, ultimately, my job is CEO, and the buck stops with me,” says Brown. “These big decisions, you never take alone, you always consult your leadership team. So there’s nothing on the technical front or within the racing team that Andrea and I don’t discuss and aren’t aligned on but it’s a competitive sport.
“When you aren’t performing at the level which you think you should you need to make decisions to change course. And that’s what we’ve done. And I’m confident with the direction where we’re headed now.”
In making these changes Brown is sending a signal to McLaren’s Bahraini, Saudi and North American shareholders, as well as to his two drivers. Norris acknowledges that those kinds of big calls are needed in this business.
“I’m thankful I’m not in that position!” he says. “I’m the guy who’s driving the cars. But I guess it’s been good to see that they’re not shy of doing those types of things. It’s a very tough job to be in. But yeah, I guess everyone has to make a decision at some point.
“Obviously, Zak has bosses too. This is a business in the end of the day, you want what’s best for the business, and not just maybe what looks the nicest. And sometimes you have to be a bit more cold-hearted at times.
“It happens in every team, it’s not like it just happens in McLaren. It happens in every team up and down the grid. You always want better people, and you try to get rid of the people who are maybe not performing to the level that you need, especially in F1 when it’s so tough and so tight.
“You don’t want any weakness in any shape or form. I just drive the cars and I drive the results of everything that happens above. It’s clear that changes needed to be made, and they were.”
It will be intriguing to see how those changes turn out. There will be some impact on the development of the MCL60, and a lot more on next year’s car. However Sanchez’s contribution won’t really be seen until the 2025 model hits the track – the last year of Norris’s current contract.
Will it be enough to convince him to stay in into 2026, when new regs are coming and McLaren might even have a new engine partner? We will have to wait and see.