The revival of McLaren – How the Legendary Team Recaptured Their Glory

Only 3 of the 20 teams on the current Formula One grid have stood the test of time since their launch: Williams, Ferrari, and McLaren. Ferrari has stayed mostly consistent during their time on the track with several dominant spells. Williams, although having a successful few years in the past, has struggled in recent years. As of now, many fans might struggle to see how Williams may emerge from their current misfortune. However, the story regarding the latter of these three iconic teams should provide Williams fans with hope for the future. 

Written by Aryan Desai, Edited by Aiden Hover

The McLaren Formula One team is one of the most successful teams in Formula One history with 12 drivers championships, 8 constructors championships, and over 180 wins. From Ayrton Senna to Lewis Hamilton, McLaren has a rich history of legendary drivers who have pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a racing driver. However, after their most recent drivers championship in 2008, the team’s growth staggered. 

Fast forward to 2017, where McLaren hit one of their lowest points in the history of the team. During this season, McLaren would only score 30 points between their two drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne. Theoretically, this driver pairing should have served the team extremely well. Alonso, a two-time world champion, brought immense skill and a plethora of experience while Vandoorne, as a rookie, brought fresh talent to the team coming off a successful junior career himself. So, what seemed to be the issue? For the last 2 years, McLaren had been running a Honda engine. As Alonso would love to discuss, this engine was terribly unreliable and lacked pace where it was needed most. 

McLaren’s 2017 car, the MCL32
 Photo Credit: Road and Track

Despite the performance of the car overall, McLaren was confident in their chassis and believed that with the right engine, they could once again return to the top of the grid. 

Promptly after the disastrous 2017 season, McLaren announced that they would be switching to a Renault engine. In previous years, the Renault engine had been delivering great performance for both the Renault and Red Bull teams. Since McLaren was confident in the rest of their car beyond the engine, then this engine switch was bound to make their team incredibly competitive once again. Unfortunately, this logic did not work out for the team. It was soon discovered that McLaren’s problems did not stop with their engine. Now, during this season, Alonso was able to finish 5th place at the opening race in Australia, but this burst of success would not sustain. McLaren finished the season with only 50 points, not much of an improvement from their stint with the Honda engine. 

Was it the chassis? Was it the management? Was it the drivers? Most suspect that it was a combination of the latter two. Fernando Alonso, having years of credibility as a Formula One driver, took a management role in the team. This led to most of the focus going on him, with Vandoorne being pushed aside and Alonso’s success prioritized. 

Fernando Alonso (Right) and Stoffel Vandoorne (Left)
Photo Credit: Autosport 

It was well agreed that Alonso performed better than Vandoorne till this season, but Vandoorne never really had strong opportunities to showcase his worth. Formula One is a team sport, and when a person places an “I” in team, things will inevitably fall apart. Thus, McLaren closed on another unsuccessful season. 

Enter 2019. Before the season even started, two crucial changes had already occurred. Andreas Seidl had stepped in as the new team principal, and the team had decided to go with an all-new driver lineup. 

Alonso had made the choice to retire after the 2018 season. In order to replace him, McLaren called to Lando Norris, a driver in their young driver program who had just achieved a second-place finish in the Formula 2 championship. Originally, Vandoorne intended to fill the second seat at McLaren. Unbeknownst to most, a storm was brewing at Red Bull that would go on to shake the Formula One Community. 

Daniel Ricciardo, after several successful years at Red Bull, announced that he would be leaving the team for a seat at Renault. Ricciardo will enter this story again, but for now, it is important to focus on the impact of this transition. At the time, Renault’s driver lineup consisted of Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz. The Renault team had chosen to have Ricciardo take Sainz’s seat, leaving him without a spot for the next season. Sainz had just come off his most successful season in the sport. A former Red Bull Academy driver, he had excelled on the track with consistent point finishes. 

Daniel Ricciardo (Left) and Carlos Sainz (Right)
Photo Credit: BBC

Though Renault overlooked his worth, McLaren quickly stepped in and offered him Vandoorne’s seat. Sainz quickly accepted this seat for two primary reasons. The first and most obvious reason was that he would be able to guarantee himself a seat on the grid for 2019. Secondly, Sainz, a proud Spaniard and racing aficionado, looked up to Fernando Alonso. In spite of the fact that his father was a rally car racing legend, Sainz’s true passion was Formula One, so it was logical that his idol would be one of the most successful Spanish drivers of all time. The proposition of racing for his idol’s former team was too hard to resist. This move to McLaren, although never planned, would be one of the best things to happen to Carlos Sainz. 

Carlos Sainz (Left) and Lando Norris (Right)
Photo Credit: Formula One

As soon as Norris and Sainz were confirmed as the new McLaren drivers, it was clear that the team was taking a brighter, new approach than in years before. From the start, fans immediately saw the fun and lively chemistry between the drivers and the team both on and off the track. 

With Alonso no longer managing the team around himself and time to hone in on the new Renault engine, McLaren could start getting things done. The car was significantly faster. Even better, it was consistently fast, with no more horrendous reliability rules. Norris and Sainz were able to score high points finishes at several races that year. To add icing to the cake, Sainz was even able to get his first-ever podium at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix in a race where he started last. McLaren finished the season as “best of the rest” in the constructor’s championship, after clinching 4th behind the big 3: Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari. 

2020 only brought more success for the team in orange. At the opening race in Austria, Norris secured his first-ever podium. A few races later in Monza, Sainz got his second ever podium and was very close to scoring his first win, narrowly losing to Pierre Gasly. McLaren was back onto the podium, something fans did not think was possible in 2017 and 2018. During this season, Ferrari faced a plethora of issues with their car and struggled to find speed, which left the 3rd place spot in the constructor’s championship up for grabs. Competing for this spot was Renault, Racing Point, and McLaren. After a very close battle with Racing Point in the closing stages of the season, McLaren managed to secure the 3rd place spot in the constructor’s championship with 202 points to Racing Point’s 195. McLaren was finally back.

Going into 2021, McLaren has some pretty big changes. Earlier in 2020, Ferrari made the choice to drop Sebastian Vettel from their driver lineup. Acknowledging Sainz’s skill on the track, the legendary Italian team recruited Sainz to replace Vettel for the 2022 season. McLaren needed a driver suitable to replace Sainz to ensure that they could keep their momentum going. Recall Daniel Ricciardo, the driver who “stole” Sainz’s seat at Renault? Originally, when Ricciardo announced that he would leave Red Bull, McLaren tried to have him race for their team, but at the time, McLaren seemed like a risky move as they had lacked decent results for quite some time. However, their resurgence from 2019 through 2020 made a seat with the team seem a very good offer. 

McLaren secures 3rd in the Constructors Championship at the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Photo Credit: Formula One

With Ricciardo’s years of podiums and victories, he served as a near-perfect replacement for Sainz and should perform just as well for the team. With Norris and Ricciardo racing for the team, McLaren is on track to once again have another incredibly successful season. 

The driver lineup is not the only big change McLaren will experience in 2021. The team decided to switch to a Mercedes engine for the upcoming season. Formula One fans from the 2000s will remember the might of the McLaren team during the McLaren-Mercedes era. With their new driver lineup, McLaren may soon experience a similar era of success. 

The roller coaster ride McLaren experienced with their team’s performance for the last decade has been quite the story to keep up with, but a very important one at that. What this story tells fans is that poor performance for a few seasons is not the end for a team. The potential for revival always exists. Regardless of how bad a team might be doing, a few key changes and some plucky optimism can make all the difference. Hopefully, Williams fans can look to McLaren’s transformation as a sign that they can restore their glory as well. 

2021 McLaren MCL35M Reveal with Daniel Ricciardo (Left) and Lando Norris (Right)
Photo Credit: Autosport

To read more about McLaren’s 2021 challenger, click here.

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