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5 key factors behind McLaren's resurgence in Formula 1

Mclaren achieved its first 1-2 at the Italian GP 2021 since Canada 2010. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Mclaren achieved its first 1-2 at the Italian GP 2021 since Canada 2010. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Lando Norris' pole position at the Russian Grand Prix was the final checkbox that needed to be ticked off to claim that McLaren were a force to be reckoned with again.

The team that was once one of the most dominant forces in Formula 1 endured a rather surprising fall from grace during the turbo hybrid era (2014 onwards). They went from being a consistent frontrunner to struggling to get out of the way.

In 2019, however, the team finally started to put together consistent results and began an impressive resurgence. Compared to 2017, when they finished a lowly ninth in the constructors' standings, McLaren currently sit third in the table as of the 2021 Russian Grand Prix. They've achieved multiple podium finishes this season and, perhaps most impressively, are the only team to have achieved a 1-2 finish!

Although remarkable, the biggest question is, what changed? How did McLaren go from being backmarkers to being the "best of the rest" below Red Bull and Mercedes? In this article, we look at five key factors behind McLaren's resurgence in Formula 1.

#1 McLaren moved on from being a 'Fernando Alonso team'

Fernando Alonso had a rather disappointing stint with McLaren. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Fernando Alonso had a rather disappointing stint with McLaren. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Arguably the biggest change at McLaren in 2019 was the fresh line-up of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz, who replaced Formula 1 legend Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.

That decision helped the team regain its identity. Fernando Alonso is a force of nature and there aren't too many drivers in the history of Formula 1 possessing his level of talent.

The problem with having Alonso as a driver is that it galvanizes the entire team around him. Every single element of the team works for Alonso, and given his resume, he commands such treatment.

The biggest issue was the fact that McLaren, during that period, were not capable enough to match the Spaniard's ambition. The team had a sub-par engine that masked some glaring weaknesses on the chassis side as well.

For Alonso, though, anything less than excellence was unacceptable, and he publicly shamed Honda more than once. Moreover, being the charismatic persona that he is, the Spaniard attracted all the attention to himself, about how he was driving the wheels off underperforming machinery, how he was dominating his teammate, and more importantly, how McLaren were failing him.

Once Alonso decided to move on at the end of 2018, McLaren were able to rid themselves of the unrelenting pressure and get to work on making incremental improvements.

In hindsight, McLaren gained more than they lost when Alonso left, as it allowed the team to get rid of the negative baggage that came with the Spaniard's presence.

#2 McLaren finally accepted their shortcomings

Mclaren were no match for Red Bull and Renault in 2018. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Mclaren were no match for Red Bull and Renault in 2018. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

One of the biggest mistakes made by McLaren during the Honda partnership was a lack of focus on their weaknesses. Was the engine supplied by Honda below-par? Sure it was, but the team bought its own hype when it believed the engine was the only thing keeping McLaren from winning races again.

They left no stone unturned in apportioning all the blame on Honda for the partnership's failure but the problem was they did not focus on improving the car in the chassis and aerodynamic department.

The team got a rude awakening when they finally got rid of Honda and partnered with Renault in 2018. To their surprise, they found the car to be substantially slower than the similarly powered Red Bull and Renault.

The team realized it needed reinforcements and it was during this time that McLaren were finally able to pinpoint their weak spots and focus on getting better.

#3 McLaren switched focus to realistic and incremental goals

P3 in the 2020 Constructors’ World Championship. 🤝Enjoy this one, team. 🧡#AbuDhabiGP https://t.co/XaxG9RE6vW

When McLaren were finally able to take stock of where they stood on the grid, they had a realization that getting back to where they used to be would take time. The team, from 2019 onwards, started setting realistic goals, with a primary focus on incremental growth.

What this did was decrease the pressure on the team and allow them to progress step by step instead of fruitlessly trying to jump the queue and challenge for the championship the very next season.

#4 The pairing of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris was a breath of fresh air

First pole position. Feels incredible. Dreamt of this since I was a little kid. I’m a happy guy 😁 https://t.co/kaB2Of63CM

McLaren's pairing of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris was a breath of fresh air not only for the team but also for the whole paddock. They were young, vibrant, funny and more importantly, while they did an admirable job, they never took themselves too seriously.

The two drivers came from very different backgrounds. While Sainz already had a few years of experience under his belt, Lando was a fresh-faced prospect making his debut at McLaren.

During their time together (2019 and 2020), while Lando mostly showed glimpses of his amazing talent, Sainz was a consistent, solid performer who secured a much-needed podium for the team in 2019.

During the Alonso era, the team was entirely fixated on him, while the hapless Stoffel Vandoorne remained a mostly neglected entity. With Sainz and Norris, though, McLaren were finally concentrating on both their drivers. And it paid dividends, with both men standing out on the grid for their performance as much as their positive demeanor.

In many ways, the Norris-Sainz partnership was the best thing that happened to McLaren after Alonso's departure and the team was able to claw back lost ground from this point on.

#5 In Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl, McLaren's leadership is more secure

Under the guidance of Andreas Seidl and Zak Brown, the team has been on course to recapture its lost glory.

If there was any doubt about McLaren's commitment to get back to championship-winning form, then it was dispelled by their team principal Andreas Seidl after the team's 1-2 result at Monza. While he understood the magnitude of the result, he also made it clear that the team still had a long way to go when it came to reaching their ultimate goal.

He had no illusions about the fact that Red Bull and Mercedes were still better in all areas, and if McLaren are to reach those lofty heights, then they still have a lot of work to do.

In many ways, it is this mindset that has helped McLaren grow so much over the last few years.

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Edited by Sandeep Banerjee
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