Inspirational: McLaren Car No Longer A Tractor
5:14 PM EDT on July 10, 2023
The atmosphere surrounding McLaren after pre-season testing was so dour that the team should've been underrated—only, McLaren actually matched expectations by not coming close to a single point in the first two races. Before the 2023 season started, team principal Andrea Stella said that "[i]n terms of performance expectations, we remain realistic for the short-term" but there were "good developments in the pipeline." Unfortunately, realism in the short-term was may as well stick a raccoon in a go-kart and call it a day. McLaren only scored points in three out of the first eight races of the season—the best the team managed was a single P6 performance by Lando Norris during a messy, messy Australian Grand Prix.
Tense is doing a lot of work here. As it turns out, "good developments in the pipeline" wasn't just PR-speak. In Austria last week, Norris received a massive upgrade package, including a reworked floor and sidepods, and finished P4, an impressive performance that was overshadowed by the weekend's track limits debacle. In Silverstone, McLaren fitted Oscar Piastri's car with the previous upgrade package and added even more to Norris's, including an updated nose and rear suspension.
The new version of the MCL60, which is now something of a ship of Theseus conundrum, was enough to earn the slightly hyperbolic title of "rocket ship" from Lewis Hamilton (Norris's response: "All right, mate, relax."). Norris finished the 2023 British Grand Prix in P2 while Piastri narrowly missed out on a podium in P4, and it wasn't thanks to lucky crashes or a chrome livery or the stunning competitive morale of the British people—it was because two of the most exciting young drivers in Formula 1 were finally given a fast car to work with.
Free practice is never a good indicator of how well a team would perform over the course of a weekend, but if Alexander Albon is in second place at the end of FP3 in a Williams, you might expect a little bit of midfield magic. In the vacuum created by Sergio Pérez's recent inability to make it into Q3, the McLarens delivered. Norris finished his final qualifying lap on provisional pole; he was beat out by Max Verstappen by .241 of a second just before the end of qualifying. But the most auspicious sign for both the car and the team was that, after years of disappointing second driver performances, their rookie driver, Piastri, qualified P3.
The dilemma this season is that no matter how good other drivers perform, odds are that Max Verstappen is going to end up on top. As impressive as Norris and Piastri's results are, merely listing them does a disservice to their performances. For example: On the first lap of the race, Norris made up the .241-second qualifying gap with a squeaky-clean start that made him the race leader. Meanwhile, Verstappen found himself fighting more with Piastri than Norris, as Piastri pulled alongside him at the very start of the race and made several light stabs at overtaking, including a historically fraught but brave look down the inside at Copse, putting enough pressure on Verstappen that he went wide. These small flashes are where you have to look; after all, on the scoresheet, Verstappen passed Norris with the aid of DRS only four laps later.
Here's another flash: After the rear of Kevin Magnussen's Haas lit on fire, all drivers in the top three—Verstappen, Norris, and Hamilton—pitted under the safety car. (Piastri was unlucky enough to have pitted three laps earlier for hard tires—if not for the safety car, he almost certainly would've gotten his first podium.) With fewer than 20 laps to go, McLaren chose to put Norris on hard tires, notably against Norris's desires; Hamilton, just behind Norris, pitted for used softs. Verstappen naturally zoomed off to a two-second lead as soon as the safety car was called in, but Norris was left struggling for grip on cold hard tires ahead of—no big deal—Lewis Hamilton.
When Hamilton tried to pass on the outside of Luffield, Norris held his place. He kept ahead of Hamilton when Hamilton tried to go around the outside of Copse. The next lap, Hamilton tried to go down the inside of Luffield, pulling wheel-to-wheel with Norris before he fell back again at Copse. In those two laps, Norris's defense flipped the narrative from "What on earth is McLaren strategy thinking?" to, quote George Russell staring at the rear of Oscar Piastri's car, "That McLaren is so quick on the hards. Impressive."
Historically speaking, being bad is not odd for the hybrid-engine McLaren. In the McLaren Honda era from 2015–17, the team squandered three years of Fernando Alonso's comparatively younger career with sequential ninth-, sixth-, and ninth-place finishes in the Constructor's Championship. In some sort of twisted karmic joke, the 2023 versions of both Honda and Fernando Alonso are now living their best lives far, far away from McLaren. But then came Zak Brown as the CEO of the team in 2018 and he started winning those sponsorship deals, and then Lando Norris—not only a talented rookie but also British—in 2019, and then a third-place finish in the Constructor's Championship in 2020.
After that, McLaren stalled out. It wasn't for lack of big moves—they should've taken off after switching engine providers to Mercedes; they should've taken off after acquiring Daniel Ricciardo. But even adjusting for Ricciardo's underperformance, 2021 was underwhelming for McLaren, 2022 even more so. By this year, the picture of McLaren was no longer that of a trash backfield team, where finishing out of the points was too expected for raw disappointment—it was a team stuck on the cusp of success for long enough that it started to sour, and it turned out that fans were no longer satisfied with how Zak Brown was out there winning those sponsorship deals if the car wasn't also winning races.
Silverstone was necessary for McLaren to prove that they are, in fact, going somewhere. Of course, Norris was careful to downplay the car a little after the race, praising its performance on medium-speed corners but commenting on its "pretty terrible" performance on low-speed corners, which are notably prevalent in the following races. Norris is right—it would be unrealistic to expect the same level of performance from McLaren for the rest of the season. But at some point, McLaren will lose the benefit of potential, and that point is, depending on your level of pessimism, either now or long gone. If McLaren is looking for a point in time to be remembered as The Moment years from now, this is its best bet: a home crowd, one driver just a safety car away from his first podium finish, and the other spraying champagne with two World Champions.