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Is McLaren in trouble?

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From 5th in the 2022 Constructors Standings to scoring zero points in the first two races of 2023 is absurd. Although it’s still early days, is McLaren in trouble? The signs of worry are beginning to seep in as McLaren has not performed as expected and seems far behind the other midfield teams.

The first sign of worry came at the lap times in pre-season testing in Bahrain. The new MCL60 Formula 1 car was launched in early February and hit the track during testing to hint at a slow start to the season. During testing, CEO Zak Brown revealed to Motorsport that McLaren was behind where it wanted to be, and missed some of the targets set during development. McLaren’s development problems can be seen from testing with the team lacking confidence and hope in the car from the very beginning. Team Principal Andrea Stella commented that the team was not “entirely happy” with the car, and went further to pinpoint that the missed targets are to do with aerodynamic efficiency.

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Pre-season testing generally brings teams, drivers, and fans a lot of nerves as you’ll only really know how well a car will perform in a full race stint. Accusations of sandbagging are prevalent in Formula 1 but in spite of this, many teams have appeared to struggle in testing and then further struggle on track. Teams such as Mercedes have also demonstrated signs of struggle in pre-season testing that would only go on to become amplified in races, with drivers such as Lewis Hamilton voicing his concerns early on.

Missing targets in development often force teams to bring bigger upgrade packages that will genuinely be a hit or miss. It’s unlike upgrade packages from a team like RedBull which will only enhance the already well-performing car. Throughout the 2022 season, Mercedes struggled with their pace and porpoising. It took the entire season of upgrades, tweaks, and extravagant setups to finally bring Mercedes to a race win. Yet, they entered 2023 in the exact same position. Falling into a development race alongside all of the other teams fighting to upgrade their cars as the season goes on will definitely cause some to fall short of others, and perhaps McLaren will fall short too.

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The 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix proved to be a struggle for McLaren. Starting 11th and 18th, the McLarens were lacking pace all throughout the weekend. The opening stint of the race saw Norris facing a pneumatic issue that would force him to pit and switch to the hard compound tyre for a longer race stint. By Lap 13, Piastri was forced to retire the car during a pitstop due to an electronic issue. Then while managing a PU issue, Norris made multiple pitstops to even be able to finish the race in P17. The first race was a disappointment for McLaren and has raised some serious issues to be considered. Both cars were struggling with a range of issues rather than one specific issue, e.g. porpoising.

After the race, Norris seemed defeated and stated that they had “just too many issues today to fight for points”. Having been his debut race as a Formula 1 driver, Piastri was also disappointed and commented that the team is “still working out what the issue is”. The main concern here is that there seems to be no specific answer as to what exactly the issues are. From this first weekend in Bahrain, it was evident that McLaren will have a lot to work on throughout the season. With hopes for a better second race, the team likely took this race as a way to gather data and experiment with the car to enhance performance.

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The second race of the season was the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix which saw some promising midfield battles and hope for teams like Aston Martin and Mercedes. For McLaren, however, it was another disappointing weekend. Piastri managed the car really well in qualifying, putting the McLaren 8th on the starting grid. Starting 8th and 19th, the McLarens had some faith that the race to go better than the last. Instead, they finished 15th and 17th out of 18 drivers on the grid. On the opening lap, Piastri made contact with Gasly and practically dealt with damage for the rest of the race. Norris also picked up some damage from debris and this affected the performance greatly.

This race was another disappointment for McLaren with both cars picking up damage and having to pit early on in the race. This was not the only issue though; McLaren was lacking overall pace and performance in their car. Competing mainly with the Williams, Norris was able to get close to the Williams but not overtake them. Piastri managed to overtake Sargaent in the Williams for P15 but after pushing incredibly hard. Norris’ post-race interviews were again defeated and show disappointment with the result with more hope for the next race.

Although it’s only been two races, it is clear that there are a lot of underlying issues with the MCL60 that will have to be addressed throughout the season. The main compromise, however, is how long it could take McLaren to get back to where they want to be. With huge funds, some of the very best engineers, and a 7-time world champion under their belt, Mercedes is still struggling with where they want to be. If a team like this are still struggling a year later with no guarantee of success, how long will McLaren be set back?


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