Will McLaren Become Championship Contenders Once Again?

Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi

Image credits - Peter J Fox/ Getty Images

When one thinks of the renowned McLaren F1 Team, one instantly recollects the famous rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, or Mika Häkkinen triumphing against the great Michael Schumacher, or even the iconic red-and-silver Vodafone McLaren Mercedes where Lewis Hamilton won his first championship in 2008. The fabled team from Woking has participated in every Formula One season since 1966 and has definitely achieved plenty of accolades in the sport since.


The team is currently locked in a battle with fellow mid-field competitor Alpine for fourth in the standings and has been pushing hard to return to their former championship glory. Although the 2022 season has seen them drop back a fair bit from previous seasons, the team has taken a huge step by signing young hotshot Oscar Piastri after a protracted off-track battle with Alpine. This signing represents a big step forward, and an eye on the future, as the team aims to take on the best in Formula One once again.


This brings us to the big question: Will McLaren become a championship contender once again? Let us look to answer this question by looking at their progress towards the top of Formula One.


For the success of any team, they need two drivers performing at their highest level to bring the most points to the team. This would speak volumes of the stability in the line-up. While McLaren currently has Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, two big names in the sport's last era, driving for them, their seasons have been the polar opposite. Norris has outperformed in his McLaren, amassing 109 points in the 2022 championship. He currently sits seventh in the championship and is the "best of the rest". He is the only driver outside the top three teams (Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes) to have achieved a podium this season. On the other hand, Ricciardo hasn't managed to achieve the same level of success this season, scoring only 29 points. While this can be attributed to many factors outside his control, it is clear that Ricciardo's lowly points haul has seen the team fall behind Alpine in the race for fourth in the constructors' standings.


This makes McLaren's signing of Oscar Piastri for next season a crucial step toward their future and chances of returning to the top. They will have two young drivers who will be looking to push each other right from the outset. Norris is now an established driver in Formula One circles. He has a contract with the Woking-based team until the end of 2024 and will be expected to take on the role of team leader until then. He has improved year-on-year, and while the 2022 season may not see Norris match his points haul from last season, he has been outstanding all season long. He has been extremely quick during qualifying sessions, making Q3 13 times in 19 races, with a best qualifying of third at Imola, although he started fifth for the race. His race pace has also been very strong, as he has managed to make up for poor qualifying sessions to finish in the top 10 regularly. With only four non-scores in 19 races, it speaks volumes about his consistency and the asset he is for future seasons for the team.

Oscar Piastri; Image credits - Mark Thompson/ Getty Images

And the other half of the line-up is the Australian driver, Oscar Piastri. It doesn't go without a doubt what any team would do to sign a driver with a junior career as star-studded as his. Winning the Formula Renault Supercup, Formula 3, and Formula 2 championships in successive years is a testament to his talent. While it was unfortunate for Piastri to not have secured a seat on the grid for this season, he has used the time to get up to speed in the sport, racking up tons of miles in older machinery for Alpine. Piastri's strength during his championship-winning F2 season was his strong qualifying pace, with five pole positions in a row during the final five rounds of the season. He showed that his pace wasn't restricted just to qualifying as he converted the latter four pole positions into feature race victories, adding on to his sprint race win in the inaugural round at Bahrain.


According to Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, “Oscar is one of the up-and-coming talents coming through the feeder series into F1 and we are delighted to see him join the team for 2023. Winning both F3 and F2 in successive rookie seasons is a real achievement and a testament to his talent in single-seater racing. In Lando and Oscar, we have a young, exciting F1 line-up with a huge amount of potential, standing us in good stead to achieve our future ambitions. Oscar is an exciting addition to the McLaren family, and we look forward to seeing him grow with our F1 team.


The personnel department sees Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl head the team with the latter being the team principal of McLaren. Seidl joined the team in 2019, and along with Zak Brown, has overseen and led the McLaren team from lowly finishing positions to the head of the midfield. It was under their leadership that McLaren announced the switch from Renault power to using Mercedes power units once again. Italian Andrea Stella heads the engineering department and moved to the team in 2015 from Ferrari. He boasts over two decades worth of experience and has seen what it takes to achieve success, having been at Ferrari since 2000. He was the Performance Engineer for Michael Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen and was then the Race Engineer for Fernando Alonso. The other major figure at McLaren is James Key, Executive Technical Director. He is responsible for designing the cars from the 2021 season and beyond. He brings a wealth of experience, having been a part of many F1 teams before joining McLaren in 2019.


Coming to the infrastructure, McLaren's headquarters are located in Woking, England. The 500,000 m2 (50 hectares) facility, easily recognisable by its sleek design, has two departments: the McLaren Technology Centre, the main headquarters for the group; and the McLaren Production Centre, involved in manufacturing road cars. McLaren is also planning an expansion of the Technology Centre to accommodate a new state-of-the-art wind tunnel and simulator for their Formula One operations. The Woking outfit has been using an ex-Toyota wind tunnel in Cologne for the past few years. This wind tunnel isn't as technologically developed, which is a big disadvantage to the team. The new in-house wind tunnel is expected to be complete by late 2022, which would allow McLaren to test their 2023 challenger in the new wind tunnel. Although, it would be the 2024 car that will reap the full benefits of the new wind tunnel. This is expected to be a big step towards getting McLaren back to the top of motorsport.


Financially, the team is slowly recovering from the losses incurred during the pandemic. The team had to sell off its headquarters, lease back the building and even sell a stake in its F1 team to raise funding. Towards the end of 2020, the company had to take a loan from the National Bank of Bahrain. Their performance in 2021 helped erase some of the losses faced.


McLaren dealt with setbacks during pre-season testing having faced issues with the cooling of the brakes on their 2022 challenger, the MCL36. This issue flared up during the pre-season test in Bahrain due to higher temperatures and a track with many hard braking zones. Lando Norris was unable to do more than a few consecutive laps without his brakes overheating. This was later attributed to the design of the car's front brake assembly and McLaren had to scramble to make short-term fixes for the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix. The team had to divert funds toward fixing these brake issues which prevented them from focusing on improving the performance of the car. Another setback was Daniel Ricciardo missing a chunk of the Bahrain pre-season testing when he tested positive for COVID-19, which put him on the back foot in terms of track time and getting used to the new generation of F1 cars. Although the team has bounced back strongly from these debacles, they will look back and wonder what they could have achieved, should they have had smoother pre-season testing.

McLaren’s brake ducts changed for the Bahrain GP; Image credits - Giorgio Piola

Any team battling at the top of motorsport usually has strong financing and skilled personnel who are capable of designing the best cars to be quick on every type of circuit. They also have the best drivers capable of scoring big points every weekend and putting themselves in the best chance to win both championships. Apart from that, the teams have the best infrastructure facilities to correlate the data from the wind tunnel and simulator onto the track. Such teams also have pre-season testing with minimal issues and help their drivers get up to speed in new machinery efficiently. They are capable of bringing upgrades regularly, and out-developing their competitors as the season progresses. Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes have ticked these boxes and find themselves battling for wins and podiums every race. McLaren is slowly and steadily filling in these gaps and will definitely join the leading trio in a few seasons' time. And those rooting for the papaya orange constructor will hope the day isn't far away and see the team competing at the top of motorsport once again, just like the good old days.