With Lando Norris claiming another podium for McLaren at Singapore, can the Woking team complete the unlikeliest of turnarounds and snatch P4 in the Constructors’ Championship?
The Woking team are demonstrating one of the biggest midseason upturns in performance in recent memory, with the MCL60 now remarkably pestering the lead drivers on a semi-regular basis. This is a stark contrast from how they started the year.
Way back on their car launch day in February, CEO Zak Brown and Team Principal Andrea Stella set a target of P4 in the Constructors’ Championship, which wasn’t seen as an overambitious target.
However, on top of the usual ‘wait and see’ comments that usually comes from a Formula 1 preseason, the team were also cooling expectations about their pace in the first few races. McLaren knew – and conceded – that something wasn’t quite right with their 2023 car, and immediately tried to deflect the focus to their midseason upgrades.
After two woeful races they sat at the foot of the Constructors’ Championship with zero points, and in the first eight races most of their points came from a somewhat fortuitous haul at the crazily-concluded Australian GP.
The upgrades were desperately required, and they started to arrive just a few races into the season, but the most notable upturn in form came at the Austrian GP when they introduced what they tentatively described as ‘like a B-spec’ car.
With wholesale car changes being applied firstly to Norris’ car, the upgrades vaulted the Briton up to a P4 finish at the Red Bull Ring. The same parts were soon applied to Oscar Piastri’s car, and the points hauls soon followed. Norris has taken three podiums across the last six Grand Prix weekends, with Piastri unlucky not to have achieved his first F1 podium, although the Australian claimed P2 in a well-executed Belgian GP Sprint.
The developments continued, with new parts – aimed at improving the MCL60 in the lower-speed corners – helping Norris to P2 at the Singapore GP.
Remarkably, McLaren now sit comfortably in P5 in the Constructors’ Championship, 57 points ahead of Alpine. Of the teams ahead of them, Ferrari seem to have put themselves out of reach with impressive results at Monza and Singapore, but can McLaren complete the comeback and topple the fast-starting Aston Martin team?
Form is on McLaren’s side
Since McLaren’s first major upgrades hit the track at the Austrian GP, the Woking team have racked up 122 points across seven Grand Prix weekends. In that time, Aston Martin have had a downturn of results, and have taken one podium finish and 63 points, not helped by only taking two points from the last two races.
If this form across the previous seven races carries on into the final seven races of the year, then that would translate into McLaren finishing just 19 points behind the Silverstone-based team, but additional factors might result in this contest going down to the wire.
The last seven races also included two Sprint events, whilst the final seven Grand Prix weekends include three Sprint events, in Qatar, the Circuit of The Americas in Texas, and Brazil, creating further chances to rein in their rivals.
There’s also scope to say McLaren’s recent form could have been better still. Their improved seven-race spell includes their one-sided development preferences. Piastri’s car had nowhere near the same number of upgrades at the Austrian GP, and he will also be waiting until the Japanese GP to receive the same upgrades that Norris used in Singapore.
It could also be said that McLaren suffered from a bit of poor fortune, or poor execution, in their recent run of form. The Dutch GP in particular looked set to be another strong race with Norris starting on the front row, but an unfavourable strategy in the changeable conditions meant he could only manage an eighth place, while Fernando Alonso picked up second place for Aston Martin.
Both teams have their track preferences, and both teams weren’t particularly looking forward to the tracks which relied on strong aerodynamic efficiency, such as Monza and Spa-Francorchamps. But, crucially, McLaren still seemed to have the edge over Aston Martin at these tracks, which gives them hope for other higher-speed venues which remain on the calendar, such as the inaugural Las Vegas GP.
Can Aston Martin reverse their downturn?
Undoubtedly the surprise package in the first half of the season, Aston Martin claimed six podiums in the first eight races, but their form tailed off over the middle European leg of the season.
The team themselves have been reluctant to give too much away about their drop-off. Some suspect that the technical directive against flexible bodywork has clipped their wings, whilst others suspect their upgrades simply haven’t worked as intended.
Aston Martin have mostly put it down to rival teams doing a better job in the car development battle, and have suggested that they will continue to bring updates to the car over the rest of the season, although they have stopped short of specifying when they could be expected.
Alonso continues to be one of the most impressive drivers of the year, but the Singapore GP might have provided the first insight into all not being well at the team. His outburst of “This is undriveable!” over the radio rounded off a tough day. Aston Martin will be hoping Alonso’s form doesn’t start to dip, and that teammate Lance Stroll can have a major uptick in performances to aid the fight for points.
Officially, they haven’t declared a Constructors’ Championship objective for 2023, but their early season form triggered hopes of finishing in the top two in the championship. This is looking less likely by the race, and it might not be too long before McLaren are breathing down their necks as the season reaches its conclusion.