McLaren have started a Formula 1 season with victory on 13 occasions, and in a further seven seasons they managed to win by the second race.
But after two grands prix in 2023, the team have finished no higher than 15th and sit last in the constructors’ standings. Have they ever started a season this badly before?
Monaco GP: DNF, Belgian GP: DNS
In McLaren’s first year as a manufacturer team in F1, founder Bruce McLaren raced a single M2B and did not even enter all of that season’s races. The team’s debut came in Monaco, where McLaren put his car tenth on the grid.
He only went nine laps before an oil leak ended his day, but did briefly make it up to sixth place after some thrilling wheel-to-wheel action. His short time in the race was also recorded for the ‘Grand Prix’ film that was released in cinemas later that year.
The next race on the schedule was the Belgian Grand Prix, on the old 14km layout of Spa-Francorchamps. Oil leaks continued to trouble McLaren, who had a different engine in his car, and as he did not have a spare he decided to not start the race after competing in qualifying. Further ‘Grand Prix’ filming meant another machine was painted to look like McLaren’s for the race.
Later, points finishes at the British and United States grands prix meant McLaren finished 16th in the standings. The team’s start to life in F1 was undoubtedly tough, but matter soon improved, and it became a two-car effort by 1968.
Brazilian GP: 2x DNF, Pacific GP: 2x DNF
McLaren’s reliability proved dire after they switched to Peugeot engines in 1994. They did claim three podiums over the first nine races, but also suffered 13 retirements in the same period.
The season started with the team several seconds off the pace, yet it was a top-five contender due to the gaps in the field. Making the most of the margin it had over other teams proved difficult, though. Mika Hakkinen’s engine gave up after 13 laps in the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix, while Martin Brundle’s race ended when he was collected by a three-car crash that had taken place behind him involving Eddie Irvine, Jos Verstappen and Eric Bernard.
McLaren were comfortably inside the top 10 over each session in the next event at the TI Aida circuit in Japan. But fourth and sixth on the grid was converted into another double retirement in the race. Hakkinen made it into second place after punting Ayrton Senna at the start, then resisted the attacks of Damon Hill before he felt a hydraulic problem arising and opted to retire. Brundle then made his way into third, albeit a lap down, until he too was struck down by reliability problems.
Australian GP: 2x DNF, Brazilian GP: DNF & DSQ
What’s worse than four retirements? How about three retirements and a disqualification.
Hakkinen started the defence of his second world championship title by claiming pole for the first two races, but he finished neither of them.
In Australia there was a lot of concern about the team’s Mercedes engines, with a failure in practice requiring a change of the engines and gearboxes on both cars. Hakkinen and team mate David Coulthard then locked out the front row in qualifying, but their engines proved troublesome again and both drivers were done for the day before even a third of the race had been completed.
The previous year McLaren had bounced back from a double retirement in Australia, with Hakkinen winning the Brazilian GP and then the title. Such a turnaround was not on the cards in 2000.
Although they filled the front row again in Brazil, and the team believed they had solved the problems that had inflicted their cars in Australia, a lack of engine oil pressure put Hakkinen out in the race’s first half. Coulthard managed to finish second, but was then disqualified for his front wing endplates being a few millimetres too low. After two races, only Sauber’s drivers sat below McLaren’s in the standings.
But from such an unpromising start, by round 12 in Hungary Hakkinen and McLaren were leading both championships, though Michael Schumacher and Ferrari went on to win them.
Australian GP: 13th & DNF, Chinese GP: 2x DNF
The final season of McLaren’s ill-fated spell using Honda engines got off to an unpromising start. The team had to wait until the eighth race to score, and ended the season without a top-five finish for the only time in its history.
Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were more than two seconds off the pace through the season-opening Australian Grand Prix weekend, and neither completed the full race distance. Alonso had to retire with a floor failure, and Vandoorne came home in a twice-lapped last place.
The indignity of being lapped was spared two weeks later in China as both cars retired. A fuel pressure problem put Vandoorne out after 17 laps, and Alonso did an hour of racing inside the top ten before a half-shaft failure forced him out.
Fundamental issues in car design, and the packaging of what was considered an uncompetitive powertrain, left McLaren with little ability six years ago to turn around their season. This bad start proved entirely representative of the troubles ahead.
Bahrain GP: 17th & DNF, Saudi Arabian GP: 15th & 17th
Illustrating how poorly McLaren have started the season, every other team’s average finishing position is better than their highest race result so far.
The team talked a lot post-race at the Bahrain Grand Prix about how Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri had both shown the pace to score points with the McLaren MCL60, but the scale of their reliability problems meant potential was very far from reality. An electrical glitch meant Piastri only completed 13 laps on his F1 debut before retiring. Norris came in two laps down after having to visit the pits six times following a pneumatic leak.
Piastri started eighth at the next race, but was last by lap two following contact. He had to pit for repairs, as did Norris who had the misfortune to hit his team mate’s debris. In the end Piastri recovered to 15th, 1.4 seconds and two places ahead of his team mate, but 20 seconds away from the points.
Despite McLaren’s poor start to 2023, it appears there isn’t a major underlying technical weakness which needs to be solved as was the case in some of the past seasons above. The MCL60 also appears to have some pace as the inexperienced Piastri has already put his car on the fourth row of the grid.
But there have been errors on the part of drivers and team. Now McLaren have split with their technical director James Key, indicating a lack of belief in the direction they had headed with the design of the MCL60. It is eagerly awaiting updates to address their poor aerodynamic efficiency which has put them at a disadvantage in terms of straight-line speed.
Undoubtedly McLaren are being punished more harshly for their poor start to this season than they would have been in previous years when the field wasn’t as close. But while mistakes are more costly now than in past seasons, more can also be gained from others’ errors, and McLaren know from previous years that they have been able to recover well from poor starts – though repeating their title challenge of 2000 does not look realistic.
But, as any team will point out, this season has started on two very different tracks that are not representative of the majority of venues on the calendar. McLaren’s early season struggles may soon be forgotten.
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