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Will off-season change help or hinder McLaren’s push for F1 momentum?

McLaren will celebrate 60 years since Bruce McLaren founded the team when it unveils its new Formula 1 car, the MCL60, later today at Woking.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL36, in the pits

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL36, in the pits

Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

The change in naming pattern is a nice touch from a team that has always been very engaged with its history. While recent years haven’t offered anything like the kind of heyday that has left the corridor next to the MTC’s canteen filled with trophies - designed on purpose for the employees to walk past every day - the team has been firmly on the path to recovery.

Or so it seemed. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown admitted back in 2021 that the team’s trajectory from ninth to sixth to fourth to third in the constructors’ championship didn’t meant the team would then go second-first. Instead, it slipped to fourth in 2021 - perhaps to be expected given Ferrari’s recovery to establish the ‘big three’ - and then to fifth last year, losing its ‘best of the rest’ crown to Alpine.

PLUS: Why McLaren can be a true force in F1 again

There were definite high points for McLaren to take from 2022. It was the only team to score a podium outside of the big three, courtesy of Lando Norris at Imola. Norris once again starred throughout the season despite admitting that the MCL36 car was “very unsuited” to his driving style. The team also managed to bounce back well from the points where it struggled - notably the season opener in Bahrain that left a fairly bleak outlook for the season - even if it wasn’t enough to keep up with Alpine’s ‘little but often’ approach to updates in the fight for P4.

Norris’s displays only further justified the long-term deal McLaren moved to lock him into ahead of the 2022 season, ensuring he was in place until the end of 2025. “It is obvious that he has everything he needs in order to become an absolute top guy in this paddock,” then-McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl told Autosport in Abu Dhabi. “But of course, in order to prove that and show that, he obviously also needs the team and the car, which is our task to give him in the future.”

While Norris could adjust to the quirks of the MCL36, the same could not be said of his team-mate. The struggles faced by Daniel Ricciardo that ultimately paved the way for his exit from the team, a year before his contract was due to expire, were the overriding story of the season. An eight-time grand prix winner and the man responsible for McLaren's only race win in the past decade could not make it work with the MCL36. It was a sorry story for all involved.

Oscar Piastri comes in as Daniel Ricciardo's replacement from 2023

Oscar Piastri comes in as Daniel Ricciardo's replacement from 2023

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Axing Ricciardo may have been costly, but McLaren felt it was best for the long-term - especially when it was able to snare a talent like Oscar Piastri as his replacement. Only Charles Leclerc can hold a candle to Piastri’s junior CV, the Australian winning consecutive titles in Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3 and Formula 2 before spending last year waiting in the wings at Alpine. The contract saga that embroiled his future did little to detract from the excitement around him, even if there were swipes against his character and accusations of a lack of loyalty. But the saga, that seemed to reach further than F1’s usual bubble, also means he is going to be one of the most scrutinised rookies that F1 has known for some time.

But Seidl felt there was “no reason why Oscar cannot have quite a rapid development” at McLaren and` deliver results “quite early on,” pointing to what Norris achieved. “It is what we have seen with Lando, for example, in 2019, how quickly it can go,” he said.

Ricciardo’s exit may have been one McLaren felt was necessary, but the same could not be said of Seidl, whose departure came as more of a shock when it was announced in December. The former Porsche LMP1 boss had flourished since returning to F1, helping put McLaren on the right track for the future - but now he was off. A long-term plan to jump ship to Sauber and link up Porsche’s sister VW Group brand Audi was brought forward when Ferrari swooped for Fred Vasseur, allowing Seidl to take the step up into a group CEO role.

While it was a big loss, it was one McLaren accepted was going to happen and had already planned for. Brown had already sounded out Andrea Stella, executive director for racing, about possibly taking the top job one day, meaning the Italian could take over from Seidl once his exit was announced.

It was a move that Brown said in December he was happy to make as it “put everyone in their permanent homes for the foreseeable future.” McLaren could now focus on the next steps of its rebuild, something that has been an ongoing process for some years, getting the investment in place to build a new windtunnel and get the infrastructure at Woking in line with the leading F1 operations.

With Andreas Seidl also leaving McLaren, the team faced another rebuild

With Andreas Seidl also leaving McLaren, the team faced another rebuild

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Changing a driver and a team principal through an off-season is still a big shift for McLaren to contend with - but it’s hardly a new phenomenon for the team. It went through a similar change in 2019, the year Norris, Seidl and Carlos Sainz all started, and it turned out to be a hugely successful season. It helped refresh McLaren, dusting away some of the final cobwebs of the Ron Dennis era, and again was all intended to plan for the future. Stella knows the team and has huge experience in F1, while Piastri’s talent is undeniable. The team should remain in good shape.

But maintaining the status quo would not be a successful season for McLaren, particularly when Norris’s stock continues to rise. The midfield fight is only set to grow fiercer, particularly when you consider the amount of investment that Aston Martin has committed to the team and the upswing it showed through the second half of last year. McLaren needs to show that it can take the steps to cut the gap to the leading trio without waiting for elements like the windtunnel to kick in; there’s no time to waste.

“We have to do a better job, and the team have to do a better job with making a better car, because the job we did this year with the car we had this year was not good enough,” Norris told Autosport in Abu Dhabi. “I think that has been made very, very clear. So, I don't think we need to wait. I think already next year we need to make progress. And I have good faith that we can make good progress.”

He also made clear that even with time on his side, that’s not part of his considerations. “My contract is until the end of '25, so, I still have plenty of time,” he said. “I can afford to wait, but I don't want to wait. The team know that they need to do a better job.”

This is set to be an important year for McLaren. It needs to stop its constructors’ slide, deliver a car that is more of an all-rounder, and really show to Norris that he is in the right place for the long-term. Norris himself is going to be fully embracing the team leader role for the first time in his career, itself creating an interesting dynamic alongside such an exciting prospect in Piastri.

The MCL60 offers a tip-of-the-hat to McLaren’s trophy-laden past. But it could also be a crucial car for determining what kind of glory it can attain in the future.

All eyes will be on the McLaren MCL60 launch

All eyes will be on the McLaren MCL60 launch

Photo by: McLaren

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