2024 F1 season previews: Can McLaren build on an incredible finish to the 2023 F1 season?

Here at SB Nation we were treated to a rather unique vantage point for the “Rise of McLaren.”

When I sat down with Lando Norris in April ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix to talk about their start to the season, the tricky Baku City Circuit, and why I was so bad at F122, the McLaren driver outlined how, at that time in the season, the team was simply fighting for points.

“Tough question. Points now is what we’re aiming for,” said Norris about his expectations for the season last April. “I think that’s a realistic thing. We’ve got four very quick teams now, Aston have made that big step forward, and there’s eight spaces on the grid which get taken up very quickly. It’s a tough battle behind, we’re very close, it’s a good battle with Alpine, they were very quick in Australia too, and definitely a step ahead of us.”

By November, when I talked with Oscar Piastri ahead of the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, the team was fighting for — and securing — podium finishes.

What happened in the interim? “Faster race car,” was how Zak Brown explained it to me in October. But while there is truth to that, there was more that went into their rise. As the McLaren CEO outlined, the team made some managerial changes at the start of the season, including restructuring their technical team. These changes allowed them to deliver on their planned upgrades to the MCL60. The result was indeed a faster race car, one that allowed the “best driver pairing on the grid,” in Brown’s words, to rocket the team up the table.

By the time the season was winding down, McLaren was up to fourth with an outside shot at catching Ferrari for third. While they could not make the final pass, it was a remarkable rise that has many wondering if McLaren will be the surprise package this season.

The Papaya Army certainly believes.

F1 Grand Prix of Qatar

Photo by Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

2023 highlight: Qatar Grand Prix

The 2023 Qatar Grand Prix weekend was one of the most punishing on the entire F1 calendar.

But it was one that McLaren will likely never forget.

The team left Suzuka still in fifth place behind Aston Martin, but gaining ground due to a double-podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix. Norris finished second in Japan — at that point his fourth P2 of the season and his second in a row — while Piastri finished behind him in third. Despite banking 33 points at Suzuka, they still trailed Aston Martin by 49 points.

Thanks to what happened in Qatar, McLaren headed to the United States Grand Prix just 11 points behind Aston Martin.

First up was qualifying for the Grand Prix itself. Both drivers advanced into Q3, and while Norris failed to set a time during the third session, meaning he started the Grand Prix in P10, Piastri qualified in sixth.

Then came the F1 Sprint Saturday, which was a massive day for the team. In qualifying for the F1 Sprint race it was Max Verstappen who saw a few lap times deleted, opening the door for the McLaren duo. Piastri and Norris barged through, with Piastri taking pole for the F1 Sprint and Norris locking out the front row alongside him.

In the F1 Sprint race itself, Piastri held off Verstappen — who clinched his third-straight Drivers’ Championship along the way — for P1, while Norris finished in P3. A double-podium result for the team, and 14 more points in their account.

Then came the Grand Prix itself. As outlined above the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix was one of the most punishing races of the season. Due to concerns over tire wear FIA mandated lap limits on each set of tires, which led to teams making at least three pit stops during the race. That meant that drivers would push each set to the limit, and without any laps for tire management, that meant drivers did not get a chance to ease up at any point in the race.

Add in the weather conditions, and you have a race where some drivers were vomiting in their helmets, while others eventually retired due to the physical punishment they experienced.

Somehow, Norris and Piastri endured. Verstappen scored yet another win, but the McLaren duo joined him on the podium, with Piastri in P2 and Norris in P3. 33 more points for the team, bringing their total on the weekend to 47.

“It was just a mega race from start to finish. We had a good opening lap. I learned from my mistake yesterday of going wide, I said I’d go tight, and I did, and it worked out. So, a good start, we had good pace throughout the whole thing,” said Norris after the race. “Probably the best pace out there today, so I’m happy. Stressful, hot, sweaty, little bit tired but a great job for the team. Three in a row now. A 1.8 second pit-stop as well!

“I think the three-stop made it a lot harder physically. You could push a lot more. Even the last stint, you could pretty much push flat-out. This was one of the hardest races I’ve done, but it’s a nice challenge and congrats to Oscar. Thank you to the team for their incredible work to put us in this position.”

Team Principal Andrea Stella praised the entire organization, on a day that saw McLaren secure their 500th podium in F1.

“A fantastic day for the team as we achieve our 500th podium in Formula 1. Both Lando and Oscar drove great races in difficult conditions to finish P2 and P3 to add to the success in the Sprint yesterday. A double podium rewards the team both trackside and at the factory for their brilliant work and my thanks go to them for their continued commitment and dedication to McLaren,” said Stella.

“The tyre limitations provided an interesting challenge for the team as we had to adapt our strategy and prepare the team for six stops. However, they managed very well and the brilliant work by the pit-stop crew saw the fastest stop of 1.8 seconds.

“We now turn our focus to a busy triple-header and continue to close the gap to our competitors. We must remain with our feet on the ground, however for now, we will celebrate the success of a very strong weekend.”

2023 lowlight: February and March

As noted above, McLaren truly began the season on the backfoot.

Struggles with the MCL60 were apparent all the way back in pre-season testing. The team promised that upgrades to their 2023 challenger would be coming, hopefully by the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but in the interim there were races to be contested.

In the first two races of the season, McLaren did not score a single point. In the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Norris started in P11, while Piastri did not manage to get out of Q1, and started 18th. The rookie retired on Lap 13 with an electrical failure, and while Norris was able to finish the race, he needed six pit stops to deal with a hydraulic issue.

Norris finished P17 in Bahrain, two laps behind race winner Max Verstappen.

Things improved the next time out, in Saudi Arabia. But only slightly. While Norris was knocked out during Q1 on qualifying day, Piastri advanced to the first Q3 of his career, and started the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in P9.

Their chances at finishing in the points were over before Lap 1 was in the books.

Piastri made contact with Pierre Gasly at turn two, and needed to pit for a new front wing. Norris, who was behind the two, drove over the debris created by the collision and had to pit as well, on Lap 2. That put the McLaren duo at the back of the field, and they could not make up the deficit on the track. Piastri finished in P15, two spots ahead of Norris in P17.

It was not the start to the season that McLaren, or their fans, wanted to see. Thankfully the tide would start to turn over the next few months.

Outlook for 2024:

Given how they finished the season, expectations around McLaren are rather high as 2024 beckons.

And with good reason.

Their strong closing stretch has given the team a ton of momentum heading into 2024, but the biggest question is likely this: Can they start on the front foot with the MCL38, and not on the back foot as they did a season ago with the MCL60?

We will get our first answers to that during pre-season testing in a few short days.

However, Stella is optimistic.

“I’m certainly pleased that we’ve been able to make significant steps forward after a difficult start to 2023 from a reliability point of view,” said Stella in a piece on the McLaren website. “I’m pleased, not because I look at the results, but because I look at the work that we have put into the technical reliability, in particular. In terms of looking at the organisation and the operating model of how we deal with reliability, we have deployed more forces and structure on reliability.

“We are working on further evolutions in terms of the way we look at reliability, which we will carry into the future. And, we have also added some more people to work on reliability.”

If the team has gotten it right with the MCL38, and they truly start on the front foot?

Watch out.

Formula 1 Lenovo Grand Prix Of Japan 2023

Photo by Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Person under the most pressure to perform in 2024: Andrea Stella

Given their finish to 2023, the expectations are much different around McLaren this year. There is pressure to go around, from Brown down to the driver pairing of Piastri and Norris.

Ultimately, how well they start this season — and how well they finish — starts with Stella.

The Team Principal addressed their expectations this week ahead of the 2024 campaign.

“We’re not just focused on results, but we are more focused on what leads to results and the things that are in our control,” Stella explained. “What is in our control is that we keep doing the best possible work to deliver according to the talent that is present in the team, which is huge and increasing in every area.

“The standards we set and the way in which we operate to produce the car needs to be the highest possible, all based on the aspect we care the most: collaboration and teamwork. If you do not have a strong collaborative attitude, then McLaren is not the place for you.

“We focus on doing the best we can, working collaboratively as a team. From this point onwards, the results take care of themselves”, added the McLaren boss. “We will use the results to check more accurately where we need to keep improving and where we need to accelerate the development of the team – that is our ethos.”

2024 McLaren lineup

Team Principal: Andrea Stella
Drivers: Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri
Challenger: MCL38

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