McLaren was heading into the 2020 Formula 1 season with a real sense of momentum, generated by the combination of a strong 2019, a renewed sense of direction, two talented young drivers and a new engine supply deal for 2021. McLaren was on the way back to the sharp end of the grid.
This year was about putting the final pieces in place, ready for greater things in 2021. Then, of course, a global pandemic began and now McLaren’s plans are, like most of society, on hold.
The team – which is based in Woking, Surrey – actually found itself at the centre of F1’s own coronavirus crisis, as the sport pressed ahead with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in mid-March, right as the disease became a global emergency. A positive test for a McLaren employee who was due to work in the Albert Park paddock prompted the team to withdraw, triggering the events that led to the race’s abrupt cancellation hours before practice was to begin. The teams packed up and headed home – and haven’t done too much since.
The good news for McLaren is that all of its team members are now back from Melbourne and healthy. The bad news is its momentum has been arrested and the rebuild is on hold. Still, team principal Andreas Seidl remains optimistic.
“The most important thing at the moment is to get through this crisis and survive it as a team and as Formula 1,” he says. “Then we have a clear plan in place of what we have to do in the coming months and years to move up the grid. The shutdown is the same for everyone, and I’m confident that as soon as we are through this crisis, we can continue the positive momentum.”
Previously the head of Porsche’s squad in the World Endurance Championship, the 44-year-old German has played a key role in McLaren’s revival since he joined last May. He’s in charge of the on-and off-track management of the team, working under McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown.
The grand McLaren Technical Centre in which Seidl now works contains numerous reminders of the team’s glories: 12 drivers’ championships, eight constructors’ championships, 486 podiums and 182 race wins. The building is dotted with cars and trophies highlighting those achievements, carrying the names of drivers such as James Hunt, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton.
But McLaren hasn’t won a race since 2012 – an eight-year drought stretching back 140 races that’s unprecedented in the team’s 54-year history. During that tumultuous span, long-time boss Ron Dennis was forced out after a boardroom battle and a much-anticipated reunion with engine supplier Honda in 2015 ended in an early and acrimonious divorce after just three seasons.
So while Seidl joined a team with a rich history, in reality he was taking the helm of a mid-pack outfit running customer Renault engines. Still, there were already signs of improvement in form in the races held before he started last year.
“I’ve benefited from a lot of good decisions that were made by Zak and the team before I arrived,” says Seidl, “which shaped the development direction of the car over the winter. That meant I could come in and, with James [Key, technical chief] and my leadership team, take our time to analyse where we see the weak points of the team.”