How McLaren Pulled Off Its Miraculous British F1 GP Podium
Yes, McLaren’s newest bodywork delivered results at Silverstone, but it’ll need more than that to become a real contender.
McLaren is one of the most storied teams in the history of Formula 1, but its performance over the last decade or so has been spotty at best. In a sport where the highs are monumental and the lows are heartbreaking, McLaren's managed to deliver just enough thrills to keep its fans—and investors—from jumping ship. From scoring a 1-2 at Monza in 2021 to this weekend's incredible performance at the British GP with Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri is a reminder that the Papaya Orange squad's still got it. Though it's worth asking—How did it do it, and is this newfound performance going to last?
F1 is all about small margins. Thousands, hundreds, and tenths of a second cut over the course of several corners and multiplied over so many laps are what deliver points-paying positions. Add up those points over so many races and that's how you become the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes, and once upon a time, Ferrari and McLaren. It appears no one told McLaren this, however, because its new upgrades for Silverstone didn't deliver small results, they actually trimmed nearly a full second off its deficit to the front runners, according to Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
"It is exciting to see the McLaren bounce back," Wolff told the BBC. "You can, within a season, come with upgrades that completely change the performance of the car. And we are not talking 0.2 seconds up or down, we are talking a second."
McLaren brought a new and long-awaited upgrade to Silverstone, one that focused primarily on new bodywork to improve aerodynamics. Both Norris and Piastri wore new floors, engine covers, halo fairings, and cooling louvers. Norris' car, however, had another ace up its sleeve—one that Piastri will have to wait for a bit longer to get: a new sidepod whose design borrowed heavily from those in the championship-leading Bulls.
Interestingly enough, it's this general design direction that Lewis Hamilton has asked Mercedes to follow, but Wolff insists that tests have yet to reveal any possible gains for the Brackley squad.
"We had the [Red Bull] sidepod concept in the tunnel very early on already to see which avenues it would open up and see how much it would add to performance," Wolff told the BBC. "The relative loss of downforce the way we measure it was substantial. So it's not something we wanted to follow up during the year. Will we change our design direction? I think we have a great group of aerodynamicists and I'm sure it will be a consideration seeing the step they made."
There's more to McLaren's Silverstone form, and the bodywork upgrade is only the result of changes that were implemented as far back as the off-season. McLaren CEO Zak Brown made a host of changes to the team, including the shuffling, firing, and hiring of several key positions in order to improve the team's culture and performance. Appointing Andrea Stella as the team's principal is one such move.
Stella has focused on making McLaren more agile as a whole, speeding up various processes, including bringing upgrades to the table.
"My focus is just doing the right things, focus on performance, focus on creating a vision for the team, making sure everyone understands what the vision and direction is," he told the BBC. "But the most important thing is you don't do these things alone. Even the collaboration with Zak has been incredibly close and strategic. We wanted to establish a different model from a technical point of view. It is just a different way of working.
"It doesn't have to do with somebody in particular. We wanted focus on aerodynamics, focus on performance and concept, focus on engineering and design, and this requires a bit more of a distributed model when it comes to the technical organization. That was the rationale," said Stella.
A new technical focus adopted by everyone in the team and new physical upgrades certainly played a big role in delivering the most exciting quali session in 2023 so far as well as Lando's second place and Piastri's fourth on Sunday. But that's exactly it, those fresh brains and new hardware can't produce results on their own, they need two competent drivers willing to put in the work in order to achieve results.
It's no secret that Norris is destined for greatness. I can imagine Brown loses a bit of sleep every month to the fact that Norris might get pulled from underneath him the same way he pulled Piastri from Alpine. More importantly, however, is that Norris has always been willing to play it smart and play it cool. He's happy to be learning from his and McLaren's mistakes and even happier to rectify them. He's yet to earn the ultimate reward for his patience and loyalty, but Sunday's second place at his home track is as close as it gets.
Piastri, on the other hand, is an A+ racer through and through. His debut in F1 has been, like that of many other youngsters graduating from lower series, tumultuous. He was given a microphone and put under a spotlight that he never asked for, but he's proven that he can deliver. And if he keeps racing the way he did Sunday, he'll do just fine.
What does the future hold for McLaren? Right now, it's tough to say. But we should have more answers come Sunday's Hungarian F1 Grand Prix. At the very least, no one will take McLaren's newfound performance, or at least not all of it. The question is how much of it will transfer to the remaining races, and what other improvements Stella has lined up. At the very most, McLaren is now a legit contender for podiums for the remainder of the season. My guess is the answer is likely somewhere in the middle. Norris, however, isn't wasting time dreaming up fantasies.
“We do have a poor car and I would say pretty terrible in the slow-speed corners, extremely difficult to drive,” Norris told media after the race. “I feel as if we’re getting excited and I accept that, but we’re going to go to a couple of tracks coming up where I’m sure people are going to be saying: ‘What have you done now? Like, how has it got so bad all of a sudden?’”
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