The modest and hard-working Italian leading McLaren back to the front of the F1 field

Spread the love

In a year of domination by Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing, one of the great stories to come out of 2023 has been the remarkable turnaround by McLaren. They have gone from struggling to get out of Q1 and scoring points to having the second fastest car at Japan and Qatar.

Early season troubles

At the launch of the MCL60 in February, McLaren’s new team principal Andrea Stella immediately sounded the alarm bells about the difficult start to 2023 they would face.

“There’s some other areas of the car that will be improved by developments in the early stage of the season. So we are happy, not entirely happy for what is the launch car, but optimistic that we should take a good step soon.

“Like I said before, I think while we are happy with the development of the car in most of the areas, there’s some areas in which we kind of realised a little late in development, some really strong directions. So not necessarily we have been able to capitalise on this direction in the very short term.

“That’s why also I talk about the developments coming after the start of the season. So in this sense, I just invoke realism.”

After scoring no points in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the Italian warned that the Baku package was not going to deliver miracles as he explained some of the problems they were experiencing with the MCL60.

“In terms of weaknesses of the car, we talk about aerodynamic efficiency. Not necessarily this means the car is draggy.

“Simply the ratio between downforce and drag is not as high as we would like. That’s the main weakness.

“When it comes to the Baku upgrade, we do see the numbers, which are promising.

“It’s hopefully from sixth, it will allow us to be fifth.

“It’s not enough yet to achieve our objective for the season, which is to become a top-four car.

“This will require the Baku upgrade and we require another couple of upgrades following Baku on which we are working.”

Days after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Technical Director James Key left the team, and it led Andrea Stella to implement a new technical structure.

The turnaround begins

After scoring just 17 points in the first eight events, McLaren brought a massive upgrade package in three parts: Austria, Silverstone and Hungary.

Stella explained before Austria just how much had to be changed on the car that was launched in February proved to be pretty uncompetitive in the corners and also extremely draggy on the straights.

“At the start of the season, we realised that the car needed a fundamental redesign, so this redesign is actually interesting.

“I would say pretty much every single aerodynamic part [will change] – that’s why the upgrades will be spread over the course of a few races. It will be decently noticeable.

“We had to redesign even some parts under the bodywork. That’s also why it took some time to be in condition to deliver these upgrades. I would say pretty much the entire car.

“I’m banking on this package, but across the pretty much three races in which we will introduce it, these should be a few tenths of a second – it will be noticeable from a lap time point of view.”

The upgrade which Lando Norris had access to in Austria was the start of the transformation. He qualified P4 in the Friday session and backed that up by finishing there in the race, helped by Carlos Sainz’s post-race penalty for track limits.

When Oscar Piastri got his hands on the Austria update at Silverstone, both McLaren’s immediately fought at the front. They qualified a stunning P2 and P3, and it would have been the same result in the race had it not been a badly timed Safety Car for Oscar Piastri.

After a brilliant P2 in Hungary for Norris and the same position for Piastri in the sprint at Spa, the results in the next three Sunday races were relatively disappointing.

More upgrades delivers another step in performance

But another sizeable upgrade package brought to Singapore has seen them properly take off. It has clearly seen them take a big step forward in race trim.

A superb 2nd for Norris at Marina Bay kicked things off. At Suzuka, the Brit and Piastri finished a fantastic P2 and P3 after the Aussie put in a stunning qualifying lap to get himself on the front row using the updated package for the first time. It was the Melbourne-born driver’s first F1 podium, too.

Last weekend at the Qatar GP, they produced their best event of the season to date. They annexed the front row in the sprint, with Piastri taking his first win and Norris backing him up with P3 following a bad first lap.

Track limit issues for both drivers in Q3 on the Friday left them P6 and P10 on the grid. They produced excellent drives to seal P2 and P3 once for a second consecutive weekend, this time with Piastri ahead of Norris.

Since the first upgrade package was introduced at the Red Bull Ring, McLaren (202) have only been outscored by Red Bull Racing (336). They are now just 11 points behind Aston Martin for P4 and have taken 126 points out of the Silverstone-based team across the last 10 events.

In the Drivers’ Championship, Norris and Piastri have both moved up 5 spots since Canada. The 23-year-old Brit has a genuine shot at finishing top-5 in the standings for the first time in his career. He’s only 17 points behind former teammate Carlos Sainz who currently occupies that 5th spot.

Stella deserves immense credit

The Italian took the reigns following the departure of Andreas Seidl at the end of last season. He’s no stranger to success as he was a performance engineer for Michael Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen at Scuderia Ferrari when they won championships with the Italian giants. He came agonisingly close to winning the Drivers’ Championship as Fernando Alonso’s race engineer in 2010 and 2012, too.

Throughout this year, an impressive thing about the 52-year-old has been his honesty. At the launch and start of the year, he did not try to hide McLaren’s struggles and was totally transparent on how difficult the first part of the season would be.

Even as the season has gone on and McLaren have made the massive strides mentioned above, he has always emphasised that there is still a long way to go to try and challenge for race wins and championships on a regular basis, as well as the limitations the car still has.

In media sessions and press conferences, he gives long, thoughtful and engaging answers to each question, no matter what the topic might be.

But for Stella, it’s always about thanking the race crew and everyone back at the factory for the incredible job they’ve done to turn this car and season around. He has also talked about the team keeping their feet on the ground quite often, too.

Stella will never praise himself, but he has done an outstanding job for the iconic Woking-based squad as they dug themselves out of a deep hole they were in.

The team is a tight-knit one that can thrive in a healthy environment, and they have a team boss who is humble, hard-working and very honest. With two outstanding drivers behind the wheel, McLaren are in safe hands on and off the track right now.

The key signings of David Sanchez from Ferrari and Rob Marshall from Red Bull could be massive in helping them towards their journey to end a long barren spell without titles.

While it guarantees nothing in regards to results next year and beyond, the future looks very bright for everyone at McLaren. Andrea Stella deserves a huge amount of praise for that.

Photo credit: McLaren Racing