This Formula 1 silly season is yet to really spark into life, even if a few mutters are being made over who sits where for 2020. Some big teams could well shift drivers for what is supposed to be the final year before a complete overhaul of regulations. There is one team that will simply not feature in this year’s silly season, and with good reason.
Some of F1’s legendary teams have had a difficult time over the past few years on the track. As the second-most successful outfit in the history of the series, McLaren’s dismal rut dating back to 2013 has rarely brought hints of progress. That is until a few races into the 2019 season.
A line-up of an experienced Spaniard moving on from Renault and an exciting British rookie are at the forefront of this revitalised Woking outfit – something that may have seemed out of the question at the turn of the decade. It is evident that is could be a partnership that can thrive for years to come.
There have been a number of positive changes at McLaren recently aside from the introduction of former Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz and McLaren junior graduate Lando Norris to the team. James Key and Andreas Seidl have also come in, and the results of this have been astounding. McLaren has gone from hopeless backmarker to top of ‘Class B’ in approximately half a season.
The Renault-powered MCL34 is handy and it responds to the 2019 tyres very well. On a number of occasions this year it has diced with members of the ‘big three’ early in races and has occasionally picked off the underperforming Pierre Gasly in the Red Bull come the chequered flag. After developing what turned out to be one of the worst cars in McLaren history last year, the team rebounded with perhaps its best of the turbo-hybrid era.
The drivers deserve a considerable amount of credit for the fact that McLaren is a very solid fourth in the championship as we approach the halfway point of the season, as well as the team itself. The mindset at Woking must be immensely positive right now in comparison to recent years – the team has exceeded the expectations of many (including us) at this point of the season – not least itself, as the team downplayed its chances heading into Melbourne.
And so, onto the underrated star in Sainz and absolute star-in-the-making in Norris. This is the best that Sainz has driven since he was putting in sensational performances in his Toro Rosso days – perhaps the best that he has ever driven. On any given Sunday, he has been extraordinarily under-the-radar but the standout consistent performer in the unquestionably tight midfield scrap.
Sainz has not been perfect – not least on a Saturday where he trails his rookie team-mate, but he almost always makes up for it in a race and comfortably sits as the ‘Class B champion’ in the standings. His tally alone is greater than that of every other Class B team except for Renault – in which he sits just one point shy of.
After a tricky year (plus a bit) at Renault – where there were still some fantastic performances albeit not as frequent as he may have hoped – his move to McLaren as the de facto team leader seems to have revitalised the totally underrated driver. He has been saying the right things to the press, brought a bit of a relaxed tone to the team and is helping bring the best out of the operation. In response, the team has been able to bring out the best in him on a regular basis – something Renault seemed to fail to do.
His credentials as one to watch were there for some time coming – not least by giving Max Verstappen a very difficult time in their rookie season at Toro Rosso. But when it became clear that Verstappen was the chosen one to move to Red Bull and it became clearer that Sainz had fallen out of favour after not being picked to join the main team, he seemed a little bit lost at times.
In Sainz, McLaren has an opportunity to salvage a driver who could have been the latest to be added to Red Bull’s young driver scrapheap. It has taken this opportunity with both hands and has a guy who can potentially lead it back to where it feels it belongs – at the front and with world championship glory.
On the other side of the garage, is McLaren’s youngest ever driver. There was scepticism to be had over Norris’s promotion to F1 after just a single year in Formula 2 – in which he had his “worst season” in car racing. The speed was there, but it was not always consistent and there were some significant errors in his title challenge which he lost to George Russell – now hoisting a Williams to places it doesn’t belong. He also fought another stellar 2019 rookie in Alexander Albon over what became second in the standings.
It was clear that the talent was there, it just needed to be unlocked. And it is clear that this is a serious gift for the future. With it, also comes a massive breath of fresh air – someone not afraid to joke around and post a brilliant meme on social media. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but Norris – a sim racer in his spare time – is a guy who young fans can relate to and this is a huge benefit to F1 moving forward.
For whatever reason, Norris has been able to thrive at the team whereas two other huge rookie talents – Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne – seemed to just fall apart in the environment. Perhaps the brighter, more vibrant, up-to-date shift shown by the team goes beyond the cool livery displayed on the car.
This goes before mentioning the teenager’s on-track performances which, for the most part, have been immense. In combat – clattering into Lance Stroll at Barcelona aside – he has looked strong, especially in recent races. Is he intimidated by the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton – two of F1’s great overtakers – in combat? No way. This guy is screaming potential world champion material at this tender age.
In qualifying, he has been majestic and nabbed a few Class B ‘poles’ and a few eyebrow-raising Q3-earning performances on a Saturday. He is ahead in this battle against his experienced team-mate which should say enough.
Of interest, the pairing is working incredibly well – in stark contrast to the Spaniard/Briton pairing of a dozen years ago. Unlike in 2007, there isn’t a championship on the line here. Instead, both drivers understand that this remains a period in which McLaren continues to rebuild. That both guys – who are both young – understand this, work incredibly well together and show respect to each other on and off the track, could be fundamental to the team’s quest to returning to the front.
It’s refreshing to be able to write about McLaren in a positive manner after three dismal years with Honda, bizarre driver choices and simply strange accusations about how strong the chassis was before being horrifically exposed when adopting the Renault power unit. All of that, along with the internet phenomena of ‘GP2 engine’, Freddo-gate, deckchairs and whatnot, incredibly feels like a very long time ago.
That positive stories can come from one of F1’s juggernauts and that a rejuvenated potential champion and a young starlet who himself is a potential champion can be at the forefront of this revival is only good for the series as a whole. The other nine teams will have to squabble over who sits where for 2020 because McLaren has made an important statement of intent by showing that neither driver is going anywhere any time soon.