“Keep an open mind, be humble and be respectful.”
That’s the McLaren mantra for the next phase of its IndyCar journey, and it’s not hard to see where it stems from.
This year’s Indianapolis 500 was an embarrassment for the team. It was less an underestimation of the challenge that the Brickyard presents than an overestimation of McLaren’s own skillset and history, and what it could apply to the Month of May.
Now, McLaren is heading back in a full-time capacity in partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and Chevrolet as Arrow McLaren Racing SP, and a familiar face to the IndyCar scene in McLaren Racing sporting director Gil de Ferran is heading the program up.
“When we looked at it, particularly after the 500, there were a few things that came to light,” de Ferran tells RACER. “One of them was, we’re either in, or we’re not. And I think the second conclusion is we don’t know what we don’t know.
“We’re going to be humble about it. Although there is a lot of knowhow scattered around McLaren, we haven’t been doing this day in and day out for a long time. It was important to build a partnership with someone who has been doing it for a long time with some success.
“It’s not easy to build a team of people. It takes time. People and personnel like long-term commitments – people have families, and things like that – and it takes time for people to gel and establish procedures and improve things. You’ve got to go through several experiences to perfect your craft. Therefore, doing things full-time and for the long-term is what gives you the best possibility to perfect your craft.”
In de Ferran, McLaren has the 2000 and 2001 CART champion and the 2003 Indy 500 winner as its figurehead within the new partnership and that in itself is a clear change; the Brazilian having been mainly focused on Formula 1 during the run-up to this year’s failure at Indianapolis.
“From the McLaren end I’ll be leading the charge, and it’s something that we intend to ramp up over time and try to add value over time,” he says. “Again, being humble about our ambitions, but it is exciting. IndyCar was a huge part of my life, it’s a sport that I think I understand fairly well, and it’s good. Frankly, going between the UK and the U.S. all the time for me has been most of my life since the mid-90s! So I feel kind of at home.”
That F1 focus is added experience for de Ferran, who was able to step back when Andreas Seidl started work as McLaren’s team principal earlier this year. What the Brazilian has been able to take away from the F1 side of things, however, is proof that taking the time to create the right working environment can pay dividends, as the team currently sits fourth in the constructors’ championship.
“Frankly, it’s a little bit of the same thing from a human perspective,” he says. “Bringing teams together is not an easy task and it’s something that takes time. [Over] the last 12 months I was focused on that on the Formula 1 side, and one thing that never ceases to amaze me is what effect time has, even with the same people.
“When you have a team where the chemistry is good, the culture is good, the feelings are good, the focus is strong… that tends to produce great results. That’s not something I guess I learned on the Formula 1 side; it’s something you already know. But it was a reminder for me.
“Again, we embark on a similar journey with a solid base already. Certainly there are a lot of technologies that have been developed over decades now in Formula 1 that with some level of adaptation can be applicable, I think, to IndyCar.
“We certainly hope that over time that will become an advantage. But like I said, let’s be humble. It’s a process and it’s a process that will take time. We have to learn how SPM operates, their strengths, their weaknesses, where the opportunities lie, where we can add value over time, but I’m under no illusion that this will happen immediately.
“I’m pretty certain that this will happen over time. We have to be respectful of what they have been able to accomplish – which is quite a lot, actually – and really make sure that we are adding value, and not the other way around.”
The partnership will not race together until 2020, but work is already underway to prepare for next season. McLaren is bringing personnel as well as the hardware from its Indy 500 project, but the way those aspects will be integrated will follow de Ferran’s self-effacing mantra.
“I think the first thing is really to get to know each other and to understand – we’ve already created a small group within the MTC – and to learn about their operations, their engineering and how they execute things, etc.,” he says. “Then to sit down together and think ‘OK, how do we add value from here as a group?’, because this is very much a partnership, and both sides are very focused on making the partnership work.
“I don’t know (if the infrastructure might need to change) yet. We need to live in their world and together identify areas where we can add value. That may be infrastructure, that may be something else. I don’t know at this point.
“Certainly we have some preconceived ideas on both sides, but I think it’s important to keep an open mind and be humble and be respectful. I think they’re three key words, and only this way can we make a partnership work and become stronger over time.”
Of course there are no guarantees at this stage, but at the start of this year the shift to a similar attitude within McLaren’s F1 project was clear to see. And the results since then speak for themselves.