2023 compared to McLaren’s worst start of the season RaceFans
McLaren started the Formula 1 season 13 times with victories, and in another seven seasons they managed to win the second race.
But after two Grands Prix in 2023, the team finished no higher than 15th and is in last place in the constructors’ standings. Have they ever had such a bad start to a season?
Monaco Grand Prix: DNF, Belgian Grand Prix: DNS
In McLaren’s first year as a manufacturers team in Formula One, founder Bruce McLaren raced one M2B and didn’t even race all of that season’s races. The team’s debut took place in Monaco, where McLaren put their car in tenth place on the grid.
He only completed nine laps before his day ended with an oil leak, but briefly moved up to sixth after an exciting wheel-to-wheel ride. His short time in the race was also recorded for the film “Grand Prix”, which was released in theaters later that year.
Bruce McLaren performed in a single car in 1966. The next race on the schedule was the Belgian Grand Prix, on the old 14km Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Oil leaks continued to plague McLaren, who had a different engine in the car, and as he did not have a spare, he decided not to start the race after qualifying. Further filming of the “Grand Prix” meant that another car was painted to look like the McLaren car for the race.
Later points scored at the British and US Grands Prix meant McLaren finished 16th in the standings. The start of the team’s life in Formula One was no doubt difficult, but things soon picked up and by 1968 two cars were running.
Brazilian Grand Prix: 2x DNF, Pacific GP: 2x DNF
McLaren’s reliability proved terrible after they switched to Peugeot engines in 1994. They did score three podiums in the first nine races but also suffered 13 retirements in the same period.
The season began with the team a few seconds behind the pace, but still ending up in the top five due to gaps in the game. However, it was not easy to make the most of the advantage over other teams. Mika Häkkinen’s engine failed after 13 laps in the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix, and Martin Brundle’s race ended when he was involved in a three-car crash behind him involving Eddie Irwin, Jos Verstappen and Eric Bernard.
McLaren was comfortably in the top 10 for every session of the next round at the TI Aida circuit in Japan. But the fourth and sixth places on the grid turned into another double breakdown in the race. Häkkinen finished second after hitting Ayrton Senna at the start and then resisting attacks from Damon Hill before sensing a hydraulic problem and deciding to retire. Brundle then worked his way up to third, albeit a lap down, until he too was hit by reliability issues.
Australian Grand Prix: 2x DNF, Brazilian Grand Prix: DNF and DSQ
Häkkinen’s title defense in 2000 got off to a bad start. What could be worse than four retirements? How about three retirements and a disqualification.
Häkkinen began the defense of his second world title by taking pole in the first two races but did not finish either.
In Australia, there were big concerns about the Mercedes team’s engines, as the failure in practice required replacement engines and gearboxes on both cars. Häkkinen and teammate David Coulthard then blocked the first row in qualifying, but their engines proved problematic again and both drivers finished the day before even a third of the race was completed.
Last year, McLaren bounced back from a double retirement in Australia, with Häkkinen winning the Brazilian Grand Prix and then the title. In 2000, such a turn was not foreseen.
Although they again took the front row in Brazil and the team believed they had solved the problems their cars were having in Australia, insufficient engine oil pressure left Häkkinen out of action in the first half of the race. Coulthard managed to finish second but was then disqualified due to his front wing end plates being a few millimeters lower. After two races, only Sauber drivers were below McLaren in the standings.
But due to such a hopeless start to the 12th stage in Hungary, Hakkinen and McLaren were in the lead in both championships, although Michael Schumacher and Ferrari won them.
Australian Grand Prix: 13th and DNF, Chinese Grand Prix: 2x DNF
McLaren’s third year with Honda hybrids didn’t get much better. The last season of McLaren’s ill-fated period with Honda engines started futilely. The team had to wait until race eight to score a goal, and for the only time in its history, it finished a season without a top-five finish.
Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandorn were more than two seconds behind the pace at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix weekend and neither covered the full distance of the race. Alonso was forced to retire with a floor dip and Vandorn returned home in last place with a double lap.
Two weeks later, in China, the humiliation of lapping was done away with as both cars retired. A fuel pressure problem put Vandorn out of action after 17 laps, and Alonso spent an hour racing in the top ten before a half shaft failure forced him out.
Fundamental problems in car design and the layout of what was considered an uncompetitive powertrain left McLaren six years ago with little room to change its season. This bad start fully demonstrated the challenges ahead.
Bahrain Grand Prix: 17th & DNF, Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: 15th & 17th
A double setback befell the McLaren drivers in Jeddah. Illustrating how badly McLaren started the season, every other team’s average finishing position is better than their highest race result so far.
The team talked a lot after the Bahrain Grand Prix race about how Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri both showed speed to score points with the McLaren MCL60, but the scale of their reliability problems meant the potential was far from reality. Due to an electrical failure, Piastri only completed 13 laps on his F1 debut before retiring. Norris was two laps behind after visiting the pits six times with a tire leak.
Piastri started eighth in the next race but was last on the second lap after contact. He had to go for repairs, as did Norris, who had the misfortune of hitting the wreckage of his teammate. Piastri eventually recovered to 15th, 1.4 seconds and two places ahead of his teammate, but 20 seconds behind the points.
Despite McLaren’s poor start in 2023, it looks like there are no major technical shortcomings that need to be addressed, as was the case in some of the previous seasons described above. The MCL60 also seems to have some pace as the inexperienced Piastri has already placed his car on the fourth row of the grid.
But there were mistakes on the part of the riders and the team. Now, McLaren have parted ways with their CTO James Key, a sign of disbelief in the direction they were heading with the MCL60 design. The company is looking forward to updates to address their poor aerodynamic efficiency, which has put them at a disadvantage in terms of straight-line speed.
Undoubtedly, McLaren are punished for a poor start to the season more severely than in previous years, when the field was not so close. But while mistakes are more expensive now than in past seasons, there’s also more to be gained from the mistakes of others, and McLaren knows from previous years that they’ve been able to bounce back well from a bad start – though a repeat of their 2000 title shot doesn’t look realistic.
But as any team will point out, this season started on two very different tracks that are not representative of most of the venues on the calendar. McLaren’s early season struggles may soon be forgotten.
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