Did Melbourne show the first signs of life for McLaren this season?

Sam Cooper
Lando Norris ahead of McLaren team-mate Oscar Piastri. Melbourne, April 2023.

Lando Norris ahead of team-mate Oscar Piastri. Melbourne, April 2023.

The line on the McLaren heartbeat monitor has been rather flat of late but were there signs of life in Melbourne?

September 12 2021. McLaren engineers dressed in papaya emerge from the team’s garage into the Monza sun. With one Emerson Fittipaldi amongst their contingent, the mechanics and engineers climb up the metal fence to celebrate as their two drivers cross the finish line, McLaren’s first one-two since Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton achieved the feat in 2010.

Minutes later, Daniel Ricciardo would be pouring the champagne in his famous shoey style into CEO Zak Brown’s mouth and it seemed the revolution started upon the latter’s hiring was nearing its apex.

Yet, the reality was different. McLaren have stood on the podium just once since their Monza exploit. They’ve paid £8.5 million for the pleasure of not having their most recent winner drive for them and a year of difficulties in 2022 were further compounded by struggles in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in 2023.

McLaren’s problems can actually be dated back to that Monza win. The season was 14 races old and just six months separated the Italian race from the opening grand prix of a new era which saw the biggest technical regulations changes in recent memory.

The great resetting of the pack may not have achieved its desired effect but there were certainly winners and losers. Ferrari were most certainly of the former, finishing P2 for the first time since 2019 but as for the second oldest constructor on the grid, they were more in the latter category.

A brake problem in pre-season coupled with a Ricciardo COVID-enforced absence did not represent an ideal entry point into F1’s new dawn. Lando Norris conducted all three days of testing but even from the feedback of just one driver, it was clear not all was well.

The MCL36, designed under the leadership of James Key, was lacking in comparison to its predecessors. It was a pattern that would continue throughout 2022 and see McLaren lose out on P4 to Alpine.

Yet any sign they would be able to contend for that spot in 2023 quickly seemed unrealistic.

Even before the season started, worrying comments were emerging from the MTC.

Norris suggested he knew the car had troubles months before it was unveiled, new team principal Andrea Stella, installed following Andreas Seidl’s move to Sauber, was less than enthusiastic speaking during pre-season testing and the team had lost one of the most experienced drivers on the grid for an admittedly high potential but still raw rookie.

A subpar start would have come with no surprise then, but the manner of it was alarming. Reliability issues for both drivers were followed up by P17 and P15 in Jeddah.

But in Melbourne, something seemed to have finally clicked. With the help of the chaos in front that saw Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon all retire along with a five-second penalty for Carlos Sainz, McLaren scored their first points of the year and Oscar Piastri secured the first of his career.

The MCL60, named in honour of their namesake founder establishing the team, may not have shown the pace of McLaren’s 2020 car but for the first time this season, there was evidence of life.

Norris commented on the improved pace while Stella was far more optimistic than that Bahrain outing and perhaps it could hardly have come at a better time.

With the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix, Formula 1 now enters a four-week hibernation before emerging from its nest for the race in Baku, giving McLaren time to work on the crucial upgrades and in fairness to them, even during their troubles, they have never been a team to stand still.

The most obvious evidence of that was Brown’s willingness to swing the axe inside of the technical team. Out went Key, who had been in situ since July 2018, in came staff with stints at Ferrari and Aston Martin on their CV.

With lengthy gardening leaves to serve, their contribution to the McLaren car will be non-existent for a while yet meaning the work to fix the MCL60 is in the hands of those already within the MTC one of which is Peter Prodromou, the technical director for aerodynamics.

The most obvious issue with the MCL60 is the lack of downforce and Stella has revealed the team are set for three major rounds of upgrades, the first of which will come in Baku.

These changes were signed off by the previous regime and are understood to focus on the floor and sidepods, with McLaren becoming one of the earliest teams to move to a Red Bull-type sidepod design in July 2022.

“The improvement of car performance issues should start in Baku,” Stella said ahead of the Australian Grand Prix.

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“The improvement in Baku should affect an area of the car that it has been clear that – I think from the presentation of the car – we weren’t entirely happy with in terms of development.”

Stella also told of a significant upgrade package, which he freely admitted is similar to that of a B-spec car, around summer but McLaren will be hoping these changes ahead of Baku are enough to bring them back into contention.

The question now though is in contention for what? Heading into the season, the target for McLaren would have been to regain P4 from Alpine but the French outfit have made progress of their own, not to mention the giant leap Aston Martin has made.

It is looking likely then that McLaren and Alpine are set to battle for the P5 spot and Alpine’s double DNF in Melbourne was certainly favourable for McLaren’s hopes of achieving that.

But a first step is needed on any journey and their performance Down Under suggests maybe, just maybe, McLaren is on the way back from the abyss.