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Analysis
Formula 1 Saudi Arabian GP

Why McLaren's revamp is not just about its 2023 F1 car struggles

After its disappointing start to the Formula 1 season, it would be all too easy to think that McLaren's latest restructuring is an inevitable response to its current woes.

James Key, Technical Director, McLaren

It often happens in F1 that lacklustre performance from a new car triggers the departure of the senior technical figures that pulled it together.

But in McLaren's case, the exit of technical director James Key and the appointment of a new technical executive team has been a long time coming, and the wheels were set in motion weeks before the MCL60 hit the track.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown alluded to as much in a press release announcing the changes on Thursday.

"It has been clear to me for some time that our technical development has not moved at a quick enough pace to match our ambition of returning to the front of the grid," he said.

"I'm pleased that, having completed a full review with Andrea, we are now able to implement the restructure required to set the wheels in motion to turn this around."

It is understood that the changes can be traced back to alarm bells going off at McLaren about its situation as long ago as the middle of last year.

But it was team boss Andreas Seidl's departure last winter, and the promotion of Andrea Stella as a replacement, that triggered the kind of deep review that highlighted the scale of change needed.

Looking at the long-term picture of the team, McLaren's senior management felt that the lack of progress the team made from 2021 into 2022 highlighted some inherent problems in the way things were being run, which have subsequently been confirmed with its latest car.

Its conclusion was that McLaren had enjoyed a lot of success off the back of the good platform it built from 2019 to 2020.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, in the pit lane

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, in the pit lane

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

That car was effectively run over two seasons, including an engine switch from Renault to Mercedes, as McLaren battled for podiums and even wins over 2020 and 2021.

However, the good form ultimately disguised weaknesses within its organisation that did not become clear until after the new rules era came in for the start of 2022.

So when that momentum stalled last year, and McLaren appeared to be further back and not really recovering as the season progressed, it prompted deeper debate about its structure.

This included questioning whether having Key as sole technical director was the right approach, and whether they were getting the most out of experienced figures like Peter Prodromou.

With Stella having conducted his belt and braces review of the team, it was agreed that a wider revamp was needed – especially as McLaren knew it had to make the most of the opportunities coming from its new wind tunnel and simulator.

Plus, when it became clear to Stella over the winter that his former colleague David Sanchez was interested in joining from Ferrari, it triggered his plan into action.

Management structure

The decision by McLaren to move away from having a single technical director is also interesting because McLaren is a team that has tried numerous structures in the past.

It infamously had a 'matrix' management system under the tenure of Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh, where traditional divisions of responsibility were distributed across wider personnel.

That structure was abandoned in 2019 following the arrival of Brown and Andreas Seidl, who instead felt things were best run with a single technical director.

As Seidl said at the time: "I've always been a friend of simple, traditional and clear hierarchies."

Going back to a system of there being three technical chiefs would appear to be going back on that call, but McLaren thinks that such a plan makes much more sense now.

With Stella coming from an engineering background, it has in place a team principal with the technical know-how to oversee matters on that front and have the scope to do things differently.

That means that having three experts in their field – Sanchez on car concept, Prodromou on aerodynamics and Neil Houldey on engineering and design – all working together should help it become stronger as a whole than having a single technical chief spread thinly across all those elements.

Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, in a Press Conference

Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, in a Press Conference

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Divisions of responsibility are also clear when it comes to Stella's operations with the race team, as the promotion of Piers Thynne as new COO will help provide support at the factory and ensure everything is running as well as possible at Woking when the team is away at grands prix.

The true impact of McLaren's latest restructure may not be felt for a while, especially as Sanchez will not be joining until 1 January 2024 unless McLaren can reach some sort of agreement with Ferrari for him to be released earlier.

But with its wind tunnel and simulator coming on tap over the next few months, and a future-proof structure now settled, the road map for the next few years is at least now clear.

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Internally McLaren wants to finish this year fourth in the championship, fight for podiums in 2024 and then be battling for wins in 2025.

There may be some short-term pain to go through before then, especially as it waits for upgrades to come through for its current car, but there seems a belief from its current chiefs that it finally has in place what it needs to achieve its targets.

As Brown said: "These strategic changes ensure the long-term success of the team and are necessary to see McLaren get back to winning ways.

"We have everything coming into place now with our people and infrastructure and alongside an exciting driver line-up, I'm determined to see McLaren get back to where we should be."

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