While Red Bull has won every race of the 2023 Formula 1 season, there’s no team more compelling than McLaren right now.
The Woking Team began the season among F1’s bottom feeders, but in the last four races Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri have been consistently finishing well within the points, combining for five top-five finishes.
It’s not unheard of for a team to upgrade its cars over the course of the season, but McLaren’s move from a cellar-dweller to occasionally nipping at Red Bull’s heels is tough to fathom. The MCL60 is an entirely different beast than it was during the year due to changes to the underfloor, sidepods, and front wing.
The differences are subtle to the untrained eye — in part due to to fact that the underfloor upgrades might be the most significant, but aren’t visible outside of the floor edge profiles — but the change in results is undeniable.
Since these adjustments starting rolling out at the Austrian Grand Prix, McLaren has more points (86) than any team besides Red Bull, outscoring Mercedes (80), Ferrari (69), and Aston Martin (42).
They could be even further ahead of the pack if Piastri hadn’t been knocked out of the Belgian Grand Prix on the first lap after qualifying fifth.
Those are astounding results for a team that managed just 17 points in the first eight races of the season with just one event with either driver finishing above ninth place (the Australian Grand Prix).
In fact, F1 hasn’t seen anything like McLaren’s turnaround in recent years.
Since the current scoring system was instituted in 2010, 51 teams have produced fewer than 20 points in their first eight races. That pool averaged 15.9 points in the rest of their seasons.
The most points any such constructor managed was 68, achieved by Torro Rosso in 2019. That squad doesn’t really compare to the 2023 McLaren team as it seized on a couple of big opportunities to finish on the podium instead of finding a consistently higer level of performance.
Of those 68 points, 42 came from two chaotic races — including a German Grand Prix where just 13 cars made it through every lap, and six of the top 11 drivers in the championship standings didn’t reach the end.
There are slightly more points available now than there were in recent years with the fastest lap worth a point and the presence of standalone sprint events, but it’s clear that McLaren is in a league of its own as far as midseason development goes.
McLaren’s resurrection may not have come in time to rocket them up the standings as fourth-place in the constructors championship is 88 points away with 10 races remaining. Catching Ferrari or Aston Martin is conceivable if they continue at their current clip, but it will be an uphill battle.
The greater ramifications of the team’s reversal of fortune could be for their drivers.
Norris recovering from disappointing 2022 season
Norris signed an £80-million (just over $100-million) contract extension prior to 2022, but finished seventh last year with just one podium. He wasn’t doing much to inspire confidence early in 2023 outside of a strong sixth-place showing in Melbourne.
Now he’s reminding the F1 world what he can do in a competitive car. In the first 91 races of his career his best result was a second-place finish, which he managed once. In the last three races, he’s equalled that finish twice. At a time when Max Verstappen is a mortal lock to win any given race, it’s tough to expect any more.
If McLaren had continued to roll out an unimpressive vehicle, Norris would be looking at his second straight year of languishing in the middle of the pack with some sheen coming off his reputation. Behind the wheel of the quick MCL60, he’s looking like a driver capable of earning one of the top seats in the sport in the near future — and it’s easy to forget he’s just 23 years-old.
Norris sits just 23 points behind Carlos Sainz and 30 behind the duo of Charles Leclerc and George Russell. He could get as high as fifth in the standings if he continues to roll.
Piastri proving his mettle
Piastri has even more to gain from his car’s new form.
The Australian entered the season as a much-hyped rookie, but collected just five points in the first nine races (he got McLaren’s upgrades one race after Norris). That wasn’t enough to have the F1 world doubting his talent, but as long as the McLaren was a dud it was going to be hard to gauge what he had to offer at the highest level.
Now Piastri is sitting on 34 points for the season — an excellent total for a rookie. The grid contains 16 drivers who debuted under the current rules, and that group averaged 34.1 points in their first seasons starting at least half of Formula One’s races.
Piastri has already matched that, and he could clear the top dog Alex Albon (92 points in 2019) — who spent half of his first season in an excellent Red Bull car — if he keeps up his current pace.
Not only would an achievement like that be a boon to Piastri’s reputation, finishing strong might have a material effect on his career. The 22-year-old’s contract with McLaren only runs through 2024, and he has a chance to put himself in an excellent bargaining position.
If Piastri had spent 2023 muddling along scrapping for occasional points — like it looked like he was going to be a few months ago — his leverage would be greatly diminished.
With the MCL60 looking good he has the chance to show that the hype around him is justified. A strong second half of the season could have McLaren straining their pocket books to retain him or attract another top team to poach him.
It’s possible that McLaren will come back to the pack following the summer break as Aston Martin has pledged to keep working on its 2023 car, Mercedes could find more pace if it can tame the porpoising issues that returned in Belgium, and Ferrari can’t be totally dismissed with Charles Lerclerc earning podiums in two of the last four races.
Even if that happens, what the team has already accomplished is remarkable. Its duo of young drivers has already turned what might’ve been a lost season into a reminder that they can compete with just about anyone.