Is It Too Soon to Write Off McLaren?
Written by Olly Radley, Edited by Sameena Khan
Various talking points have emerged from the opening two rounds of the 2023 season, but the question of “What’s going on at McLaren?” seems to loom largest of them all. We’ve only visited Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and yet it seems everyone’s mind is made up that this season may end up being a write-off for McLaren, who were on the podium just a year ago in Imola. Of course, there are multiple contributing factors to the demise of McLaren over the winter, but it’s no guarantee that these factors have determined the outcome of McLaren’s 2023 season.
The departure of Andreas Seidl
A noticeable change over the off-season partially explains McLaren’s drop-off in performance: the loss of their team principal, Andreas Seidl. Seidl oversaw McLaren’s return from their ruins in 2019 as the team returned to the limelight after its torrid Honda-powered years, rebuilding the team to be the best of the rest in 2019 and 2020.
The reason behind Seidl’s exit is to head the Audi project as CEO of Sauber Motorsport to build the team ahead of their Audi takeover for the new engine regulations in 2026. Andreas’ appointment at McLaren overlapped with the dawn of Lando Norris’ F1 career, who partnered with Carlos Sainz. With Seidl’s leadership, the pair became a fan-favorite power duo who drove exceptionally to bring McLaren up to 4th in the Constructors’ in 2019. Seidl’s management arguably brought the two so close together, which was pivotal to McLaren’s success in 2019 and 2020.
Even after Sainz’s departure and the subsequent acquisition of Daniel Ricciardo, Seidl managed McLaren brilliantly to 4th in 2021 and 5th in 2022, despite the poor performance of Daniel Ricciardo. However, the significant loss from Seidl leaving is his concrete relationship with Lando Norris, who he helped through his first four years in F1.
Like him, his replacement, Andrea Stella, is from an engineering background. He already has 22 years of F1 experience and worked with Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso during his 15-year stint at Ferrari. Stella switched to McLaren at the dawn of the Honda era in 2015. In the eight years that have passed, Stella has been steadily promoted to Race Director as a part of a trifecta working closely under Seidl from 2019 onwards. As the man who manages the race operations, the Italian was promoted from amongst his peers to the role of Team Principal.
This is Stella’s first taste of being a Team Principal, and Stella’s integration phase could partially explain McLaren’s winter struggles as head of the team. Stella is no slouch, of course, but with big shoes to fill, it hasn’t been the fairytale start to being Team Principal of McLaren.
Has McLaren’s start actually been all that bad?
One of the biggest things to consider is the severity of their poor start to the season. From testing, it was expected that McLaren might struggle in 2023 due to the team's poor times and general vibe; Lando Norris especially looked underwhelmed and disappointed with his MCL60.
Oscar Piastri's debut qualifying session wasn't necessarily a baptism of fire but a bit of a fiasco, with the Aussie starting from 18th on the grid. Meanwhile, his teammate, Lando Norris, made it just short of Q3 to start 11th. Unfortunately, it only took 13 laps for Piastri's weekend to take another turn for the worst - his race ended prematurely due to an electrical issue. In the #4 Papaya McLaren, Lando Norris had a similarly nightmarish race, with a pressure leak causing the Brit to pit every ten laps so his mechanics could refill the system. As a result, Norris had finished two laps down by the chequered flag, having pit six times.
Next, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix showed signs of promise but still no reward for the team. A brush against the wall at the final corner knocked Norris out of Q1 in 19th place. At the same time, his rookie teammate amazingly advanced to Q3 following the driveshaft issue for pole favorite Max Verstappen. Oscar put his McLaren on row five in P9.
As soon as the race got going, the team was struck by damage to both cars, with Piastri being squeezed into the side of Pierre Gasly's pink Alpine, while further back, Norris suffered similar damage to his front wing. Piastri was the first to pit to fix his broken wing: Norris followed him in a lap later. With their wings fixed, the pair sat bottom of the running order. Come to the chequered flag; they had advanced only to 15th and 17th, with Piastri being the leader of the two.
On paper, P15, P17, P17, and a retirement is a worst-case scenario start to the season for McLaren, but with all things considered, you could argue that these first two races aren’t as bad as they seem. Piastri’s performance around the streets of Jeddah was a cloud with a silver lining, while Norris’ lack of results to show for along the Corniche was down to an arbitrary mistake and simple misfortune. Bahrain was a simple and typical case of lousy reliability in their car, which historically has proven to be quickly ironed out by most teams.
It’s easy to forget that McLaren endured a similarly rough start in Bahrain last season. Lando Norris qualified in P13 and finished even lower in P15 in a race uninterrupted by issues. Then, just a month later, Lando was up on the podium after a somewhat fortunate race in Imola. By the end of the season, Lando was head and heels above the rest of the midfield and firmly the best of the rest. While McLaren has driven two poor races at the start of the season, they’ve been under the cosh in a similar time and position not long ago, so it doesn’t mean they’re entirely out of the running.
The short and simple answer is yes, it is too early to write off McLaren in 2023. While I don’t think they’ll be able to reach the heights they’ve achieved in recent memory, they’ll undoubtedly be able to recover from their torrid two races in the Middle East. Moreover, we’re heading into the longest calendar F1 has ever seen, so if there’s ever been time to turn a season around, it’s now. It’s safe to say, however, that we’ll all be following the progress of the McLaren under Andrea Stella with great interest throughout 2023.
How do you think McLaren will fare in the remaining 21 races of 2023? Will they return to the front of the midfield, or will they struggle toward the back of the pack? Let me know in the comments section below this article. That’s it from me, though, so goodbye for now.