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Analysis
Formula 1 Monaco GP

Why McLaren’s shock tech signing points to a new F1 approach

McLaren’s bombshell news of signing Red Bull stalwart Rob Marshall as new Formula 1 engineering technical director is the clearest sign yet of how it is doing things differently.

The Red Bull trophy delegate leaves the podium with the Construtors trophy

After years where McLaren had pinned belief of a turnaround of fortunes in F1 on improved facilities and revised management structures, it is clear it is no longer simply sitting back and hoping for the best.

Instead, McLaren CEO Zak Brown and newly appointed team principal Andrea Stella have got their elbows out and accepted that if they didn’t take action – and plot an entirely new course for the squad – then it was never going to achieve its aims.

As Stella remarked this week: “We are a team with the ambition of fighting for championships, but over the last couple of seasons we have not shown a steady upward trend from an on-track competitiveness point of view.”

Their first move was shaking up things internally; implementing a new technical structure earlier this year following the decision to part ways with previous technical director James Key.

It lured Ferrari design chief David Sanchez to become part of a new F1 Technical Executive team, where he will working alongside aerodynamic TD Peter Prodromou and engineering and design head Neil Houldey, who will now work alongside Marshall instead.

But Brown and Stella knew that, if they were to make the most of the benefits of a new windtunnel and simulator that are coming on tap this year, then they had to ramp things up even more on the staffing front.

They duly captured Aston Martin aerodynamicist Mariano Alperin, but their more recent coup in luring Marshall, Red Bull’s former chief designer, is arguably their biggest success yet.

Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, 2nd position, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, Rob Marshall and Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, 3rd position, on the podium

Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, 2nd position, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, Rob Marshall and Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, 3rd position, on the podium

The benefits for McLaren in going all out in signing top personnel from rivals are going to be two-fold.

First, the team gains from absorbing the best knowledge it can from rivals about car concepts and what works and does not with the current generation of cars.

It will not have gone amiss in the corridors of Woking that Aston Martin has been able to make a significant leap forward after being able to call upon the brainpower of Dan Fallows (who came from Red Bull) and Eric Blandin (who came from Mercedes).

Tapping in to the performance secrets of the current generation of cars, and it is clear Red Bull has unlocked something special that rivals have not cottoned on to, can help hugely fast track progress.

As Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer said recently about poaching staff from top teams like Red Bull: “You want to shortcut the process.

“Red Bull has an aerodynamic team of 50 people, it's not one. But the guy who sits on top of the 50, he gets all the ideas. So, when you displace him, his brain is full of all those learnings.”

Getting those 'learnings' to flow through in to an actual car design will not be instant, and it took Aston Martin more than a year to fully benefit from Fallows’ and Blandin’s input.

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, on the pit wall

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing, on the pit wall

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

But what it does do, and this is perhaps the second main factor, is that it gives McLaren belief for the future that good things are definitely coming.

It knows that calling on someone as knowledgeable of the Red Bull design concept as Marshall will bring benefits down the road, so McLaren's hopes of moving forward have a basis in fact rather than just being based on a whim and a prayer.

That belief of things moving forward is also critical for the team keeping hold of Lando Norris who, despite publicly keeping a brave face on the progress of McLaren this year, must surely have started to question whether or not he could ever achieve his title dreams at Woking.

Now, with hard action having been taken in capturing key staff and knowing that the windtunnel and simulator coming on tap are going to ramp things up even more, there is tangible evidence that McLaren’s progress can be real.

It is little wonder then that Stella, in announcing Marshall’s appointment, declared it as: “one of the fundamental steps and a natural fit to aid the team’s journey to get back to our winning ways.”

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Aston Martin’s dramatic progress this year has perhaps delivered a wake-up call to rivals that if you want to make such gains in F1, then you need to get on the front foot and make major changes – not just expect a bit of tinkering around the edges to help you execute a five-year plan of progress.

McLaren’s choice, in the wake of it realising that its launch spec MCL60 was far from where it wanted to be, was pretty clear then: keep doing what it was doing before and hoping for a different outcome, or shake the tree and get aggressive.

The first approach would have been the easy option but would almost certainly have consigned McLaren to midfield status for the long term, and left it open to high risk of losing Norris.

Now, however, with its new attitude having delivered, there is a new found belief inside McLaren that it has got itself back on the course it needs to eventually return to the front in F1.

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