Although though the 2023 Formula 1 season has not yet begun, McLaren appears to be entering the next season on a very shaky foundation.
Formula 1 is under a lot of pressure heading into this new season of racing because it needs to be far more competitive than what we saw in 2022 when Red Bull won 17 of the 22 grand prix races en route to a commanding title double.
The second season with these ground-effect cars must represent a significant step towards that goal, especially in light of all the rhetoric about how the new Technical Rules, along with the budget cap and R&D scale, will offer us a much more competitive Formula 1.
The goal of these adjustments is to help teams like McLaren, who have been fighting at the front of the midfield for a while now, take that vital step and resume fighting for victories and titles, but 2022 already put a dent in their hopes.
It was a bit of a letdown when McLaren only managed one P3 result in 2022, falling to P5 in the final Constructors’ standings after winning a race in 2021 with that unforgettable Monza one-two and collecting five podiums total.
The last thing a team needed was to go backwards at the beginning of a new regulation age for winning, and the McLaren camp’s recent comments ahead of the 2023 season do little to change that.
It was unsettling to hear McLaren acknowledge that they are not totally satisfied with the current state of their new F1 car as they celebrate their 60th anniversary with the naming of the MCL60, a McLaren challenger that should be taking the team on the up and using the lessons learnt from 2022.
“There’s some areas of the car that will be interested by development in the early stage of the season,” McLaren team boss Andrea Stella said at the MCL60 launch. “We are happy… not entirely happy for what is the launch car but optimistic that it should take a good step soon.”
Naturally, the manager is attempting to paint a positive picture, but it’s not a good omen that McLaren is already discussing the need for improvement so early in the season. Teams typically speak up their successes at this time and become giddy about shakedown runs that go off without a hitch.
Stella’s remarks turned even more troubling when he mentioned how McLaren missed important performance advantages.
“I think while we are happy with the development of the car in most of the areas, there are some areas which we realised a little late into the development some really strong directions,” he said. “So, not necessarily we will be able to capitalise on these directions in the very short term, and that’s why I also talk about the developments coming just after the start of the season.”
Even though McLaren’s early advancements do point them in the correct direction, competitors are constantly moving forward, so even if they enter the new season aware that they might be behind the pack, it is not a given that they will rapidly catch up. And if they do have a slow MCL60 at the start of the campaign, that puts the team in another Lando Norris-type situation.
The British driver has put his trust in McLaren and has competed for them since the start of his F1 career in 2019. Last year, he signed a new contract that keeps him with the team through the end of 2025.
He obviously wants to win, though. And this obviously needs to be Norris’ objective given that he is frequently mentioned as a potential future World Champion with the appropriate car.
Norris has confirmed that he does have solid faith in the team, but there is an apparent but. He has made it clear that he wants to be competing for victories in 2024, the same year McLaren predicted their infrastructure would be up to date and they would run out of excuses.
Norris might start to doubt whether McLaren will ever again compete for F1’s top honors if the next step toward doing so is in fact another unsuccessful season.
“I want to believe ’24, ’25 are when you should start to see some bigger changes,” Norris said in an interview with Autosport. “It feels like a long time away. We’ve got the whole year to do, but the beginning of that starts this year.”
Although Norris is under contract with McLaren for an additional few years, this does not imply that competitors cannot swoop in and steal him away. Although there would be a sizable compensation to be paid, Norris, who is 23 years old, is ultimately a secure long-term investment.