I know, looking at reactions on social media is dangerous, but it’s fair to say McLaren has come in for quite a bit of criticism in recent days for its handling of talented young prospects over the past five years.
When Lewis Hamilton left for Mercedes at the end of 2012, it opened up what seemed like an incredible opportunity for another driver to win races and fight for championships with McLaren. Since Hamilton’s incredible rookie season in 2007, he’d been in the hunt almost every year, even if 2008 was the only successful attempt.
The problem is, Hamilton had set an unattainable standard for any other rookie to match.
“In McLaren, it was like they were treating me as if I had 10 years of experience,” Kevin Magnussen — who made his debut as a rookie for the team in 2014 — told RACER in an interview earlier this year. “They were expecting me to be on top of everything, and I think they were expecting too much. Not only in terms of results — also that — but they were treating me like I wasn’t a rookie.
“They didn’t adapt very well to me … I think the whole team wasn’t really well-prepared for a rookie.
“They had the experience with Lewis [Hamilton] as a rookie, but he had done so many test days because testing was allowed back then. And he got in a very good car that didn’t need any work, and they were performing. It’s a different situation.”
Magnussen makes an excellent point. It was Sergio Perez who got the nod to replace Hamilton, but in-season testing had been banned for three years by the time the Mexican took the seat. Although he had two years of racing in F1 under his belt, Perez had limited time in a car that represented a new concept for McLaren, and it proved to be one that would not even yield a podium.
Jenson Button was across the garage from Perez and could draw on all of his previous experience with difficult cars, as well as his status as a world champion, to drag himself through the season and get the better of his teammate by 73 points to 49.
It was enough of a gap for McLaren to opt to promote Magnussen, who duly finished third on the road — ahead of Button — in his first race. It was also the first race of the hybrid era, and while Magnussen and Button were promoted to second and third respectively after Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified in Melbourne, it remains McLaren’s most recent podium finish.
Even though the car was a long way off Mercedes’ pace, Button was impressive and picked up 126 points that year. Magnussen showed flashes of what he could do in a difficult environment, surrounded by a team trying to learn from its 2013 mistakes and simultaneously adapt to the challenges of the new regulations.
There would be Honda power the following year in an attempt to reap the benefits of works status, so surely Magnussen’s haul of 55 points would be enough to earn him a second year?
Enter Fernando Alonso.
Magnussen was relegated back to reserve driver, and Alonso gave McLaren a pairing of two experienced world champions. Even with hindsight, there is a lot about that decision that makes sense. The Honda project was never going to be easy (even if nobody could have predicted just how badly it would go), and Button and Alonso’s combined years in F1 would be beneficial to that challenge, as well as representing a tremendously marketable partnership.
So Magnussen’s time at McLaren petered out, but then came what appeared to be an even better prospect in Stoffel Vandoorne. The hype around him was huge after his GP2 dominance, and he delivered a strong one-off drive when called upon to replace Alonso in Bahrain in 2016. So when he got the chance of a full season as a rookie in 2017 alongside the Spaniard, big things were expected.
But McLaren, having been in a slide since Perez arrived, was still yet to hit the bottom.
The Amazon documentary released after the 2017 season speaks volumes. What was intended to follow Vandoorne’s start to life in F1 — hence the title ‘Grand Prix Driver’ — essentially became an inside look at the McLaren-Honda implosion. Vandoorne just happened to be unlucky enough to be in the middle of it.
So a return of 13 points compared to 17 for Alonso at the season’s end represented impressive resolve from Vandoorne, who must have envisaged F1 to be a very different place to the world he had to work in. Then this year was similarly difficult, even without Honda to blame, but Alonso’s level and a bad car made for comparatively poor results.
In order to explain why things may be different for Lando Norris in 2019, we have to look at the example of Charles Leclerc.
At the start of this season, he was in a similar situation to that of Vandoorne when he made his F1 debut. Dominant in the feeder series (GP2 having been renamed F2), Leclerc was affiliated with a big team and came in with high expectations. But crucially, he was going to be racing for a team with much lower expectations of its own, and against a solid but unspectacular driver who had traditionally started seasons slowly.
Even after a relatively tame pre-season, Sauber duly went on to deliver a clear step forward compared to the previous years. The team’s stock was rising, and helped take Leclerc’s with it. That momentum allowed Leclerc to find his feet in the opening rounds — despite some ridiculously early questioning of his credentials — and then he started regularly beating Marcus Ericsson, who has experience but is not of the caliber of Alonso.
The end result is that Vandoorne looks like a failure, having been ground down by Alonso — widely regarded as an all-time great — in a team that has been on the decline for years and is undergoing a major overhaul. And Leclerc looks like a world-beater simply by besting Ericsson in a team with newfound finances and significant Ferrari and Alfa Romeo support.
For Norris, McLaren will be a more stable place in 2019, and the Spaniard across the garage will be Carlos Sainz. The pressure and the spotlight will be far less intense than Vandoorne faced, and it gives him a good chance of avoiding the struggles of those rookies before him.
Whereas for Leclerc, the opposite is true. After just one season in F1 and with even higher expectations than this year, he will go up against at least a four-time world champion in perhaps the most complex and volatile team of them all.
And for Vandoorne, there’s no guarantee there will even be a future at this level.
None of them have lost or found their talent in the past 12 months, and none of them will do so over the next 12. But without patience and stability, it will be almost impossible for any of them to show what they can really do.
Being in the right place at the right time isn’t just about winning championships, it’s about building careers.