OPINION: McLaren is inching back toward superpower status

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OPINION: McLaren is inching back toward superpower status

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OPINION: McLaren is inching back toward superpower status

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Aston Martin’s recent announcement of Martin Whitmarsh’s arrival and the creation of the new Aston Martin Performance Technologies looks like a leaf right out of the McLaren book, and right now it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to follow that blueprint.

OK, Aston is quite a few chapters behind in terms of McLaren Applied Technologies – established in 1991 – but it is quite clearly looking at aspects of its business where it was lacking compared to competitors and seeking ways to improve.

And it would do well to do the same when it looks at the racing team, because McLaren deserves a lot of credit right now.

This is a team that wasn’t making itself particularly likable towards the end of its Honda era, but it took a long, hard look at its own failings when they were laid bare by the switch to Renault. And from there, the rebuilding process under Zak Brown took on added momentum.

From ending 2018 with one of the worst cars on the grid – picking up just two point-scoring results after the summer break – to sitting third in the constructors’ standings this year, the turnaround has been as consistent as it has been impressive. Year-on-year, there are further improvements and signs that this is a team really working its way towards the front once again.

There’s no one-off standout season based on another car or specific power unit. Last year the McLaren was strong, this year it’s even stronger.

For a while now it has been easy to categorize the F1 grid as the frontrunners (Mercedes, Red Bull), the midfield (McLaren, Ferrari, Alpine, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin) and the backmarkers (Williams, Alfa Romeo, Haas). But this year, McLaren and Ferrari have separated themselves from the rest of the midfield, each scoring double the points of the former Renault team in fifth place.

But in that midfield there were victories for the three As over the past 12 months, and not the two historic outfits. Ferrari perhaps should have had one in Monaco, and nearly did at Silverstone, while McLaren can also point to Monaco and Monza last year as close calls.

This time round, Italy marked the end of a triple-header that really emphasized just how strong the team is becoming.

At Spa, Lando Norris looked a genuine threat for pole position – perhaps even the favorite – before his crash in Q3, and we never got to see how the pace of the car would play out with Daniel Ricciardo staring from fourth. But the signs were there, and in Monza the team executed perfectly.

When your team executes a race perfectly, you earn the right to drink out of someone else’s shoe. Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

The car was quick enough to be right in the mix both in qualifying and the races, and McLaren showed no rustiness when it finally had a race win on offer. Ricciardo was never looking like he would surrender the lead after keeping Max Verstappen at bay, but once Norris was up to second – achieved with an on-track overtake of Charles Leclerc, don’t forget – he seemed just as assured.

The two drivers worked together to control the race from the front, showing just why the experienced race-winner was such a big addition this year, even if he had struggled until the summer break. But it’s Norris who has been riding the McLaren wave for longer; who experienced races that didn’t go the team’s way due to matters outside its control, and now a race that very much did simply based on an excellent performance.

“I think a lot of times (when) you’ve seen other people win, it’s because of a bit of luck here and there, but I think all weekend we’ve just done a very good job,” Norris said after finishing second. “We were in the right place at the right times, we’ve done a good job of the strategies. We put ourselves in this better position, and on my side, getting ahead of Lewis (Hamilton), with Daniel getting past two of the cars then he put himself in that position, and that was just because we did a good job.

“We had a fast car and we maximized everything we had, so I don’t think there was any luck with what we did. From the beginning, we knew we could have a good one. We bounced back well from Zandvoort, from one of our worst races of the season, to probably the best we can have so… actually, it can’t actually get any better than this.

“I’ve been part of McLaren for a bit longer (than Ricciardo), so to be on this little journey we’ve had together already – to go from one podium a few years ago, to a few more this season and now a one-two – it’s pretty insane. But it’s such a cool feeling to be part of a team like this and to win something like that as well, so I’m happy for them and happy for everyone to be part of it.”

Of course, sandwiched in between Spa and Monza was Zandvoort where, as Norris pointed out, McLaren really struggled. But that’s a sign of the work still ahead for McLaren, as it can have some weekends where it mixes it at the front, and others when it slips a long way back.

In Andreas Seidl, McLaren has perhaps the best senior management hire of the past five years in F1, and the team’s inconsistency is clearly at the forefront of his mind. He has put a strong technical team in place and mirrored that with a race team that so often gets the absolute maximum from the car.

The work that Seidl has put into assembling a group capable of both designing and running a car that can fight for wins is starting to pay off. Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

Seidl leads the celebrations when McLaren has something to shout about – cheerleading in Monza like the person with a loudspeaker facing a stand of ultras at a soccer game – but is then the first to get the team’s focus back on the job at hand.

“It is not frustrating to see the other guys winning, because in the end, if you win the race, you deserve it,” Seidl says. “The more important thing for me was to see that we continuously improve the team, because I want to get to the point with the team – we all want to get there – to win races purely on our performance every weekend; independent of track characteristics, ambient conditions, tire selection… That is what I am focused on.

“But obviously we want to take opportunities when they are there, because a moment like (Monza) is simply a great reward for everyone in the team, back home and at the track, for Lando, for Daniel, and our colleagues at Mercedes for all the hard work everyone is putting in.

“It is important to celebrate these moments, because they do not come that often for a team like us still being on (the way) up and having a lot of work ahead of us.”

Russia this weekend will show the extent of that work, because Monza was won on both performance and track characteristics, while Sochi is unlikely to be as productive.

But Seidl can be very confident that he’ll be leading more celebrations in future, because the landmark win was just the latest proof of forward momentum from a team that deserved it for its turnaround off the track, and for the car’s performance on it.

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