How a change of mindset helped McLaren design an F1 winner

It's almost impossible to believe that just four years ago McLaren was a team battling to avoid getting Formula 1's wooden spoon as the worst on the grid.

How a change of mindset helped McLaren design an F1 winner
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Ongoing difficulties with engine supplier Honda in 2017 left it facing performance and reliability troubles, and it ended the campaign ninth in the standings for the second time in three years.

Its transformation since then has been remarkable, and its shock 1-2 at this year's Italian Grand Prix has helped it already deliver more points this season than any campaign in the turbo hybrid era.

But while much of the credit for the resurrection of McLaren as a competitive force has been put on the shoulders of chiefs Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl, the reality is that the final responsibility for results falls on its technical department.

Without the drivers having a competitive enough car, there would be nothing they could do to bring home the kind of results that are a current norm.

The onus for the car steps that McLaren has taken in recent years falls on technical director James Key, who arrived at the outfit in 2019.

Since then, he has worked hand-in-hand with team boss Seidl, racing director Andrea Stella and operations director Piers Thynne to transform the Woking-based squad.

Perhaps most interestingly is that key to the progress unleashed since then is that it was not simply a case of hiring better staff to design faster car parts.

Instead, as Key has revealed, the biggest change made in terms of car progress has come from a shift of mindset triggered by a reset that Seidl unleashed.

Reflecting on the elements that he believed had helped McLaren produce a winning car, Key explained: "The team were absolutely open to change. It was things like integrating our groups more.

"Looking at the car as a whole, rather than individual functions, was something that I spotted was different to what I was used to. I felt it was probably not helping anyone really in understanding their wider role in designing a car.

"So it was opening up the process a bit more, such that we had one project rather than multiple projects and trying to converge into one.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

"Also it was being very open with stuff, and the blame cultures, etc. It was not that they were necessarily an issue when we arrived, but definitely we did not want to have them at all. So people were free to talk and attack issues in a very mature and open way.

"Plus it was target setting, which was definitely missing. We needed to have a blueprint for what we're trying to achieve.

"And whilst there were the sort of individual targets in certain areas, bringing that together, again, in a whole car sense, was necessary.

"So I think from a cultural perspective, there was definitely some work to do there just to try and reset the way we want to work."

The deep dig back then in to McLaren's competitive situation prompted the conclusion that the team needed a new windtunnel and simulator – facilities which are now under construction.

And there was no fear in being willing to check out the opposition, to understand and accept areas where rivals were doing things better.

Key added: "The process itself really, I suppose, was kind of stepping back and looking at what the weaknesses of the car were, and where we needed to improve.

"So we did a lot of competitor analysis. We tried to understand exactly what we were good at, what we weren't so good at, and why is that the case? Is it methodology? Is it the equipment we've got? Is it our knowledge?

"These were all really fundamental questions. And then we kind of built it up from there and gave ourselves a very clear objective."

Key is clear that there was no sudden eureka moment that produced a dramatic step forward with the car. Instead, it was the classic marginal gains that prove so effective in modern F1.

"It was step-by-step, trying to address these weaknesses, hang on to our strengths, and build a much more complete package. That's been a process.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, 2nd position, takes victory as his team cheers from the pit wall

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, 2nd position, takes victory as his team cheers from the pit wall

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

"It's gone from 2019, which had already started before we got there with the 2019 car, and developing that in a way which was conducive to a new step and 2020.

"Obviously then we had homologation and COVID and other things which kind of interrupted the process a bit, and then to a certain extent the same thing again in 2021. So it was a fairly all encompassing approach.

"I think there wasn't one thing that you go and you think: right yes, the gearbox needs to look different or something. It was more a sort of a big picture car approach that everyone needed to kind of grasp and then work together to solve.

"That's still a work in progress. But it's definitely working quite well now."

But, despite the huge steps forward made since those dark days a few years ago, there is no sense the team's journey has finished.

For Seidl, winning again is a great feeling, but there still remains that gap to Mercedes and Red Bull that needs closing down.

"When you see the average lap time deficit for example that we are still having throughout the year compared to Red Bull/ Mercedes, we have a realistic picture of where we are right now," he explained.

"We know that we still have a good way to go, but at the same time we are obviously ambitious. We want to shortcut this journey.

"We know that there are some things we can't shortcut, like getting the windtunnel in place, which will be key on our journey as well. But I'm very happy with what I'm seeing in terms of the development of the team.

"I'm very happy with how James, Andreas and Piers are leading the departments on the technical side, but also in terms of the human leadership. That's for me key in order to make the final steps as well in the next years."

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