McLaren headed into Brazil needing to outscore Renault by six points to make sure of fourth place in the 2019 Constructors’ Championship.
‘Best of the Rest’ behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, F1’s acknowledged ‘big three’ represents strong progress. Fourth is McLaren’s best championship finishing position since 2012.
This is a team with a proud history. Seven drivers, including two Brazilians, have won 12 World Drivers’ Championships in McLarens. The most recent was also the first of Lewis Hamilton’s six crowns.
The team can also boast eight Constructors’ titles. Only Ferrari and Williams have more. Only Ferrari has started more grands prix. Only Ferrari has won more. With 238 victories to McLaren’s 182.
But the glory days were beginning to feel like a bygone age. The last drivers’ title was won in 2008. The last constructors’ back in 1998.
There were high hopes of McLaren’s renewed Honda engine partnership in 2015. But, amid F1’s hybrid era, they were short-lived. Only minnows Marussia finished behind McLaren that year.
Sixth was an improvement in 2016 but it was back down to ninth again the following season. For 2018 the Honda association was terminated in favour of Renault. Partially, at least, to retain the interest of star driver Fernando Alonso. Performance was better but sixth place was insufficient to satisfy the Spaniard.
It was time to turn the page. The 2018 car had an intrinsic design limitation that impeded in-season development. For 2019, that was gone.
And a new driver pairing of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris gelled straight away. In the pits, smiles replaced frowns. Team spirit got a boost.
SOUNDBITE (ENGLISH): GIL DE FERRAN SPORTING DIRECTOR, McLAREN “We have a brand new driver line-up, the first time in 12 years. And if I’m not mistaken it’s the youngest driver line-up we ever had. I think it goes together with the same philosophy we had in putting the car together: it’s been the same with the drivers -- get the basics right and the preparation.”
The team also focused on learning from previous seasons.
SOUNDBITE (ENGLISH): GIL DE FERRAN SPORTING DIRECTOR, McLAREN “There has been a lot of work in the simulator reviewing everything that happened last year, reviewing and doing some simulation on how we go about race-engineering the car and getting the best out of the car, race strategy and so on.”
Sainz has certainly done that. He is battling for sixth in the drivers’ championship with Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly, both of whom benefited from half a season in the Red Bull. And Norris in his rookie season, has been nip and tuck with the Spaniard.
The recruitment of new team principal Andreas Seidl from Porsche, has been another plus. Looking ahead, Seidl sees F1’s newly-announced 2021 budget cap as key to continuing McLaren’s trajectory.
“The budget cap is important as it’s the only chance to have a level playing field in the future,” Seidl said. “For sure it will take time before the budget cap washes out. It’s not a secret that we’re in favour of the regulations. We supported FIA and FOM a lot. It’s the next important milestone on our way back.”