McLaren technical team idea could be ‘dead in the water’ if ‘weak link’ found

Jamie Woodhouse
Lando Norris with another pit stop in the grand prix. Bahrain March 2023

McLaren driver Lando Norris with another pit stop in the grand prix. Bahrain March 2023

While ex-Ferrari engineer Rob Smedley says that McLaren’s new technical structure is perfectly capable of success, he claims any point of weakness would see it all fall apart.

After McLaren put their MCL60 on the track for the start of F1 2023 at a stage where they were not happy with it, the alarm bells were ringing for the team intent on fighting at the front of the grid again in the coming years.

Indeed McLaren failed to score points in the opening two rounds, but it had already been decided by CEO Zak Brown that change was needed, so he tasked new team boss Andrea Stella with ripping up the McLaren technical structure and fashioning a new one.

And that led to the immediate exit of James Key who departed the technical director role, which under the new system is no longer a one-person task.

Smedley was sad to see Key go, someone who he rates highly with the pair having arrived in F1 with Jordan at a similar time, though he believes it was indeed time for change.

“It was a shame to see James leave the team,” said Smedley on the F1 Nation podcast. “But that’s Formula 1, I guess, Formula 1 is brutal.

“I worked with James a long time ago when we first started our careers. In fact, we were two race engineers together at Jordan, so I was with Giancarlo Fisichella and James Key was with Takuma Sato.

“He’s done a good job there [at McLaren] and he’s done a good job at other teams, so it’d be nice to see him do well somewhere else, but, it’s time for a fresh start at McLaren.

“I think under Andrea’s leadership, Zak [Brown] as the chief executive, and then three technical chiefs that they’re putting around themselves there, hopefully we can see good things at McLaren and see that brand come back to the front.”

But, with Peter Prodromou, David Sanchez and Neil Houldey now forming this new ‘technical committee’ at McLaren, podcast host Tom Clarkson asked Smedley whether this is going to impact decision making at McLaren.

With no one clear technical director, where does the buck stop he asked?

Well, Smedley said the sheer size of Formula 1 teams these days means one individual in such a role is not sufficient. Instead, where an issue would arise is if any part of this ‘technical committee’ is not firing on all cylinders.

Asked if that lack of a de facto technical director is troublesome for making definitive decisions, Smedley replied: “No, because I think there’s clear demarcation.

“I think a single technical director, the teams are too big now, they’re just way too big, the technical organisation and the level of details.

“A technical director within a Formula 1 team is still operational, it’s not somebody who is navigating where the ship is going to be sailing to in the next 10 years, what new technology you’re going to bring in, that’s what we would call a chief technical officer.

“These guys who have director in their title, they’re still operational. So they’re still decision makers, and there’s clear demarcation as to the areas where they’re going to be making decisions.

“Andrea’s job now is to make sure that all three of them are collaborating well together, and you don’t get into a situation where one of them or two of them are looking at the other one and thinking ‘well, that’s a bit of a weak link and we probably have to override some of the decisions’.

“Because once you get into that, then you’re dead in the water, you need all three to be operating at a significantly high level, a high functioning team which all rely on each other, so that you get the synergetic effect. And that’s what brings you a good car.”

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Former McLaren driver Pedro de la Rosa suggested that the people at McLaren are not a barrier to their recovery. Instead, he argues it is their facilities which are holding the team back.

McLaren plan to have their infrastructure upgrades complete by next year, which will include the benefit of a brand new wind tunnel.

“Interestingly about McLaren, I don’t think they have a problem with the people,” said de la Rosa.

“The biggest issue, I would say, is the tools, that wind tunnel, they have been working on the wind tunnel of Toyota for now more than 10 years I would say.

“This is something that if you’re fighting against the top guys, they all have their own tools, you need to have your own tools. Otherwise, you cannot keep the development pace.

“But I’m sure that they are on top of it and I’ve been told they’re building a new wind tunnel, that will be a massive boost for McLaren.”

And to his point on the McLaren people, de la Rosa believes they have the perfect team boss in Stella to bring all the pieces for success together.

De la Rosa would use Stella’s time as Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari race engineer, when de la Rosa was also with the team as a test driver, as proof of the calibre of leader that McLaren have now with Stella.

“Andrea is a great leader,” de la Rosa continued. “Because when I was at Ferrari, I was really impressed with him.

“Especially when he was talking on the radio with Fernando, it was impressive how much respect Fernando had for Andrea. When things went wrong, you could sense that Fernando was asking Andrea for his point of view, which is very uncommon.

“He’s a great leader and he will find the right route to success for sure.”