McLaren: From doing it all wrong to getting things right
One of Zak Brown’s first acts as McLaren boss was arguably the most simple, but even then he managed to make a complete mess of it.
In the years since the team’s title sponsorship with Vodafone had concluded, fans frustrated by the dark, uninspiring and increasingly logo-less liveries of the early mutant McLaren-Honda years had become desperate for McLaren to revert to classic colours.
The departure of Ron Dennis, the archbishop of blandness, in late 2016 had led to Brown landing the job of a lifetime, the lingering livery issue representing an early open goal for Formula 1’s foremost marketing man who had recently played a key role in Martini’s much-loved collaboration with Williams.
Give the people what they want, right, Zak? So he did.
Except he didn’t.
When the covers finally came off the 2017 car at the McLaren Technology Centre after weeks of teasing over social media, most expected a triumphant return to papaya exactly half a century after it had appeared for the first time on the M6A Can-Am car.
What they got instead was a modern monstrosity featuring, almost unbelievably, the wrong shade of orange.
McLaren soon realised the error of their ways and the inch-perfect paintwork for Fernando Alonso’s first trip to the Indianapolis 500 a matter of months later set a template for their F1 cars from 2018.
But getting something so simple so utterly wrong – in his very area of expertise – created a weird first impression for Brown, a supposed lifelong lover of all things McLaren whose response to early doubts over his suitability for the role amounted to an unconvincing cut-me-and-I-bleed-McLaren shtick.
If, by that logic, his blood was the same colour as the wretched MCL32 it was probably time to see a doctor. You had one job, Zak…
It was a gruesomely fitting look for the year when McLaren’s partnership with Honda went from disastrous to untenable, a reflection of a team who at the time could not do right for doing wrong, who had all the right ideas – or, more accurately, thought they did – but executed them dreadfully.
An arrogance had been at the heart of McLaren’s fall from grace since their last win at the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, and for much of his first two-and-a-half years in charge Brown was seemingly swept away by it, a team principal with the persona of a superfan.
It was not until 2018 – when McLaren were no better with customer Renault engines than they had been with Honda, as Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were regularly rooted to the rear of the grid – that the harsh reality of their situation finally smashed into a team suddenly battling to remain relevant.
The nadir came away from the F1 scene in 2019 when Alonso, representing a McLaren team who waltzed back to the Brickyard convinced they could simply turn up and beat the regulars at their own game, failed to even qualify for the Indy 500.
It was an embarrassing end to a woeful week documented in excruciating detail by the Associated Press, with one of several horror stories being Alonso had lost almost two days of track time because his spare car was still in the process of being painted the right shade of papaya nearby (notice a theme here?).
As a bumped-out Alonso was carted away to reflect on a total waste of time, it was an appropriate moment to ask what exactly made Brown – this marketing man with a gunslinger’s drawl, more foam hand than dab hand – worthy of running a motor racing institution of such history and heritage.
The great shame of the insanity at Indy was it detracted from the encouraging progress the F1 team were making – Lando Norris’s fine run to sixth position in only his second race in Bahrain proved there was indeed life after Fernando – as Brown had already put the building blocks in place for a brighter future.
Like every sport, F1 is fundamentally a people’s business – albeit one, with its famous Piranha Club culture, that sometimes treats people badly – and there is no great silver bullet for success beyond the simple act of finding the right people for the right positions.
Good teams, it is often said, mirror the personalities of the people who lead them, and in that context the recruitment of Andreas Seidl from Porsche in early 2019 was the best thing to happen to McLaren for years.
It was the moment when they stopped being Same Old McLaren, never quite as clever as they thought they were, and started becoming the “young team” – ambitious, studious, modest – they regularly refer to themselves as today.
Immediately there was a sense Brown, after kissing a few frogs, had finally found the right man, with Seidl afforded almost full control over the major strategic moves at McLaren, driving the decisions to invest in a new wind tunnel and revert to Mercedes power from 2021.
The return to Mercedes customer status brought McLaren full circle and was almost a final insult for Dennis, whose rationale behind the decision to ditch Mercedes for Honda in the first place was it would be impossible to compete at the front in the modern era without a works engine.
Will it ultimately place a limit on what McLaren can achieve? Quite possibly, at least until the new wind tunnel is completed. But why should it stop them maximising what they have here and now?
That, in essence, is the modus operandi of Seidl’s McLaren, characterised by a concerted increase in standards, professionalism and organisation.
Carlos Sainz’s podium finish in the penultimate race of 2019, McLaren’s first for almost six years, was a milestone moment, followed by two more in 2020 as the emphasis on being a well-drilled team with two drivers operating at a consistently high level saw McLaren pip Racing Point and Renault – both heavily reliant on one driver – to third place in the Constructors’ Championship.
The great advantage over their nearest opposition in 2020 proved to be their main weakness of 2021 as Sainz’s replacement, Daniel Ricciardo, struggled to adequately support Norris, one of the outstanding performers of the season, and McLaren were comfortably beaten to P3 by Ferrari.
Yet even so, last season was the year when the sight of a McLaren running at the front – something many openly feared may never happen again during the darkest days – felt perfectly normal again.
Brown was at the centre of the celebrations as the team’s nine years of pain finally ended with Ricciardo’s victory at Monza, downing a shoey with the joyful assistance of his drivers on the podium.
But by that point, he had almost retreated into a background role – the position he was maybe always meant to have within the modern McLaren.
For a symbol of how far McLaren had come in a relatively short period of time, you only needed to look at their limited-edition liveries in Abu Dhabi and especially Monaco, where they competed in the blue and orange colours of sponsor Gulf Oil.
It was instantly iconic, its allure only augmented by the matching overalls and retro helmet designs of Ricciardo and Norris, who raced that weekend to the second of his four podium finishes of 2021.
Of the current generation of F1 team bosses, perhaps it is only Brown – his wide-eyed fan side still never far from the surface – who truly has a feel for how something as simple as a one-off livery can lodge itself in the hearts and minds of the people.
Put another way, if it is Seidl’s task to transform McLaren into regular winners again – and the way Norris lost victory in Russia later in the season suggested his young team still have some learning to do in that regard – it is Brown’s job to make them look good along the way.
2021 was the year this seemingly unlikely partnership showed tangible signs of its true potential, the year McLaren – an upwardly mobile, increasingly self-confident team free from the mistakes of the past – finally became fashionable once more.
Both on and off track, they are beginning to get things right.
Brown rules out McLaren as a 2022 title contender
Zak Brown rules McLaren out of the 2022 title race.