Bullish McLaren go headhunting to show their intent

These are testing times for the McLaren Formula One team, not least as it stares down the barrel of what is likely to be another difficult weekend at the Spanish Grand Prix. Yet to come out fighting with a bullish statement of intent rather than accept midtable mediocrity has been the reaction from an organisation whose storied history deserves nothing less.

This week McLaren announced they have appointed Red Bull’s chief engineering officer Rob Marshall. The British engineer from Taunton has been an integral part of Red Bull since its inception in 2006, and played a key part in car design during its world championship-winning years of 2010 to 2013, and since Max Verstappen took his first title in 2021 – after which the Dutchman has gone on to dominate the championship.

Securing Marshall is a major coup for McLaren, albeit he will not join until next year. He will bring not only his skills but also his knowledge of how Red Bull have built such a dominant car under the new regulations. This transfer of expertise in what must be considered an F1 intelligence war cannot be underestimated.

McLaren’s Lando Norris enthused about what it meant before the Spanish GP in Barcelona. The 23-year-old British driver is fiercely ambitious, and was blunt about buying access to what may be considered Red Bull’s enigma machine. “I am very positive, excited,” he says. “McLaren did a good job to get someone as big as him. Rob is a very big addition to the team because of his knowledge, the time he spent with Red Bull.

“I am very happy, it’s a big bonus for the team. He doesn’t start until next year so it’s not like he comes straight in and can have an effect straight away, but anything that I know will help the team, well he is a big part of it.”

Norris also emphasised just how important it is to the paddock and its own personnel that McLaren is making a statement of intent by vying in the marketplace with the big three teams. “People who bring knowledge from different teams, they make a big difference. It inspires a lot of the guys, if someone who is big coming in from another team, that is a very big addition to motivate everyone to keep working as hard as they can.”

The move is the biggest signing in a sequence of changes McLaren has implemented in an effort to revitalise its ambition of competing with Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari. After an impressive third in 2020, the sheen has come off their resurgence. In 2021 they finished fourth; in 2022 under the new regulations and with hope of a real step forward they emerged with a car off the pace and ended up fifth.

This year has been even worse, with Norris and his new team-mate, the talented Australian Oscar Piastri, returning best finishes of sixth and eighth respectively in Melbourne. The downward slide is continuing, McLaren are currently sixth in the constructors’ championship.

Headhunting Marshall is definitive evidence the team, who have won 12 drivers’ and eight constructors’ titles, are not willing to accept their lot. Under the new team principal Andrea Stella there has been an acknowledgment of failures and that simply banking on a much-awaited new wind tunnel is not enough – that it is people who make the real difference.

Shortly after the very poor start to this season McLaren dismissed their technical director James Key and implemented a restructure of the technical department. It included bringing in David Sanchez, formerly the head of vehicle concept at Ferrari. They also successfully claimed Mariano Alperin, the Aston Martin aerodynamicist. Marshall, when he joins, is likely to lead an invigorated technical design department and one of no little talent.

So with these marquee appointments are McLaren making a point? “A little bit, yes,” Norris says. “It was not like we just needed someone like this but along with the signing from Ferrari and various other people as well as the changes that have happened over the last couple of months, all are things which I have seen have had a big impact within McLaren. You want to try to get the best people you can, and that’s what we needed.”

Now in his fifth season in F1, Norris had enthusiastically banked on a future with McLaren, but over the past two years their failure to deliver a car capable of competing at the front has increasingly raised questions about whether he would stay. In 2022, after McLaren failed to make a step forward under the new regulations, Norris was clearly unhappy. “I want to win, I want to be on the podium, and when you drop away from that it’s frustrating.”

So under the bright blue skies of Barcelona, as McLaren embrace an investment in fortunes that will not change now but may in future, does Norris now believe the team are doing enough to keep him on board?

“It definitely helps, 100 per cent,” he says. “I am on a contract for two more years. I don’t know how quickly people can have an impact, especially with car design and development. It definitely helps but the thing is actual performance and actual results. That is what I want to see in the next two years.” – Guardian