Daniel Ricciardo celebrates his victory in the Italian Grand Prix. (Pirelli Photo)
Daniel Ricciardo celebrates his victory in the Italian Grand Prix. (Pirelli Photo)

KNUTSON: McLaren’s Up-And-Down Season

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — McLaren took a huge stride forward this year, but the team has also made several backward steps as well.

Daniel Ricciardo won the Italian Grand Prix. His McLaren teammate, Lando Norris, earned his first pole position in Russia and came within just a couple of laps of winning the race. Those were the team’s first victory and pole since 2012.

But while Red Bull and Mercedes are competitive at all of the tracks, McLaren, like Ferrari, is fast on some tracks and not quick on other tracks. After the good showings in Italy and Russia, McLaren struggled in Turkey.

“P7 was the best we could do today,” Norris said after finishing seventh

It is definitely a track-specific issue.

“We need to understand why,” Norris added. “It is not something that you can change. It is just the car. So we just have to deal with it. At some places it is very good and we need to maximize those tracks.”

But overall, the team’s success is not sleight of hand, but the result of years of hard work.

Back in 2012, the F-1 team founded by Bruce McLaren in 1966 racked up eight pole positions, seven wins and finished third in the constructors’ championship. Then the decline began. McLaren finished ninth in the 2017 constructors’ championship. That was the year that Norris joined the team as a test driver.

“A few years ago, we got to a point when there were so many things to focus on that it was hard to choose what was the best and where to start making progress,” Norris recalled. “Where should the main focus be?”

American Zak Brown was named CEO of McLaren Racing in 2018. Andreas Seidl joined as team principal in January 2019 as the restructuring continued. That included signing Ricciardo to a three-year contract.

“The whole team is in a much, much better state,” said Norris. “When you start putting the whole picture together and the whole puzzle together, the small things are adding up. It is not as if you suddenly have a really fast car or just get lucky.

“We have not changed our approach,” Norris continued, “but there are always little things we change in the background because there’s always room for improvements. Success has not changed us just because we had a good weekend. We change every weekend because we’re trying to find improvements in every area, and there are always improvements to make.

“We had the success, we enjoyed it, we celebrated and returned back to normal — working hard and trying to improve each other.”

The team is sensible enough to know that Mercedes and Red Bull are usually out of reach, and its battle is with Ferrari for third place in the constructors’ championship.

“When we see the lap time gap in average over the course of the season in qualifying and the races to Mercedes and Red Bull, there is still quite a bit missing,” Seidl said. “But the good thing is if I compare times to the year before we have nearly halved that gap. It shows we are heading in the right direction and that the team is doing a sensational job back home on the development side.

“In Austria or Monza or Russia we actually have a good chance in the race to go to a podium simply down to our own performance. That’s what I like. We need to make the steps, but at the same time we have a realistic picture of where we are overall.”

A real benefit is that Ricciardo and Norris have similar views on how to improve the car.

“Lando and I are on the same page,” Ricciardo said. “We are asking for the same things in the car. We feel the same strengths and weaknesses. This is giving the team a clear direction on where to go and where to improve, and what to work on and what to focus their energies and attention on.

“It is really important that we are both aligned. Drivers have different styles and it does not always work like this, but what we feel in the car is pretty similar. So that is helping as well with the progress.”

McLaren’s aim is to carry this momentum into next year when the radical changes to the technical regulations kick in.

“One of the things we are most excited about is next year,” Norris said, “and having this platform, having this base, with the team within the new regulations, and going into it like that, which is definitely the strongest we have been for many years.”

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