In recent weeks, McLaren brushed off notions that the start to their 2023 Formula 1 season was a reason to panic. Lando Norris, speaking prior to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, specifically denied that the team was in “crisis.”
However, recent moves by the team might do little to dispel that notion.
McLaren announced on Thursday some organizational changes within their F1 team, focused on their technical operation. The team announced a new Technical Executive Team with three Technical Director roles, moving away from a single Executive Technical Director model.
The team’s current Executive Technical Director, James Key, is leaving the team as part of this “restructure.”
“It’s important now that we ensure we have a solid foundation as the next phase of our journey. It has been clear to me for some time that our technical development has not moved at a quick enough pace to match our ambition of returning to the front of the grid,” said Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing. “I’m pleased that, having completed a full review with Andrea, we are now able to implement the restructure required to set the wheels in motion to turn this around.”
As part of this restructure, the team’s Technical Executive Team includes Peter Prodromou, moving into the role of Technical Director, Aerodynamics. Prodromou began his F1 career with McLaren back in 1991 as part of the team’s design office. However, he left the team in 2006 along with Adrian Newey, departing for Red Bull.
Prodromou returned to McLaren in 2014, serving as the team’s Chief Engineer ahead of moving to his new role.
Joining Prodromou is David Sanchez, who recently resigned as the Head of Vehicle Concept at Ferrari. Sanchez is set to join McLaren at the start of the new year as the team’s Technical Director, Car Concept and Performance. Neil Houldey, currently McLaren’s Director, Car Concept & Performance, will move into a new role with the team, serving as McLaren’s Technical Director, Engineering and Design.
Team Principal Andrea Stella outlined the vision on Thursday.
“Looking ahead, I am determined and fully focused on leading McLaren back to the front of the field. Since taking on the Team Principal role I have been given the mandate to take a strategic approach to ensure the team is set on a long-term foundation, for us to build on over the years,” said Stella. “This new structure provides clarity and effectiveness within the team’s technical department and puts us in a strong position to maximize performance, including optimizing the new infrastructure upgrades we have coming in 2023.”
The moves come as McLaren has struggled out of the gate this season. Following a sluggish showing in pre-season testing, Stella admitted that even making it to the third qualifying session could be a challenge for the team in coming weeks. “I think we will see again that the midfield is very compact,” said Stella after testing. “And this means that if you don’t do a good enough job, even in setting up and maximizing what you have, you may struggle to get out of Q1. At the same time, you might be a Q3 contender.”
Things did not improve at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. Both Norris and Oscar Piastri struggled with reliability issues, with the rookie retiring early in the Grand Prix due to electrical issues. Norris remained in the race, but was forced to pit every ten laps or so as he dealt with a pressure leak on his MCL60.
“A very tough race,” explained Norris after the Grand Prix. “We had a few issues we had to manage, which really took us out of the race but we tried to stay in it for as long as possible, just in case there was a Safety Car or something and we might have had a chance at the end.”
“There was a pneumatic pressure leak on Lando’s car. We discovered this leak relatively soon in the race,” shared Stella. “Then we knew that it was possible only to do 10, 11 laps each time before having to refill.”
Last weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix offered a glimmer of hope, as Piastri indeed advanced to the third qualifying session and started in P9. But contact with Pierre Gasly on the opening lap caused damage to his front wing, and in a harsh turn of events, debris off Piastri’s car struck Norris’s MCL60, and both drivers were forced to box early.
Instead of fighting for the front, the McLaren duo found themselves in a battle with Logan Sargeant of Williams for 15th place in the closing laps.
Following the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Norris admitted to some frustration. “I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m happy,” said the driver. “It was the best we could do, we were just very unlucky. We weren’t quick enough either.”
Can this restructure save the day for McLaren? Stella stated following the Bahrain Grand Prix that developments were coming to the MCL60, and while they might not be ready until the fourth race of the season — the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the end of April — they will be welcome whenever they arrive.
“However, I think that for the level of talent and availability we have at McLaren already, we can recover and we can out-develop other teams because what we see in development right now is a very alive car in terms of development,” said the McLaren Team Principal. “There are some areas of the car that seem to be able to generate good downforce, like I’ve said already, they were not ready in time to be part of the launch spec. But this car will evolve pretty much race-by-race, with some major upgrades that will come, the first one around race four.”
For Brown, the changes made this week have set the team up for the future.
“These strategic changes ensure the long-term success of the team and are necessary to see McLaren get back to winning ways,” said Brown on Thursday. “We have everything coming into place now with our people and infrastructure and alongside an exciting driver line-up, I’m determined to see McLaren get back to where we should be.”
This was supposed to be a season of promise for McLaren, given the addition of Piastri to the driver lineup following a harsh fight with Alpine for his services. Putting the promising rookie alongside Norris, one of the more talented drivers already on the grid, seemed to put McLaren in position to battle at the top of the table.
Instead they find themselves at the back of the pack, fighting off questions of panic and making organizational changes after just two races.
Those developments to the MCL60 cannot come soon enough.