Silverware is the currency of sport. In F1, if Ferrari is the dollar, McLaren is the Euro. The two teams have enjoyed massive success throughout the history of the sport, and their collective trophy cabinet would be a literal gold mine.
However, such success brings with it a large portion of hate and negativity. Just ask Mercedes, who are on the verge of winning an eighth successive Constructors’ Championship. Fans want to root for likable teams. Of course teams like McLaren have a large fanbase, but there are many purists (read: Ferrari fans) who despise them.
But just like every other sport, success doesn’t guarantee a permanent stay at the top. This lesson has been learned the hard way by many teams, and perhaps none more so than Ferrari and McLaren. Once dominant and unbeatable champions, the two teams currently vie for the honours of being third best. But there comes a question – why is McLaren way more likeable than Ferrari is in 2021?
Don’t forget – McLaren were basically the equivalent of a fallen giant three years ago. They looked like a shadow of their former selves, barely looking competitive, and had racing play second fiddle to paddock politics and toxicity.
For all their rich championship-laden history and numerous years at the top, some years ago, McLaren was the speedy equivalent of the downtrodden AC Milan. And they wished they were speedy back then.
The situation from 2015 was abysmal. McLaren’s second partnership with Honda was a nostalgia act and nothing else. The team finished ninth out of ten teams on two different seasons. They could barely compete with Haas, let alone Ferrari.
By the way, Ferrari were still in the upper sections of the Constructors’ Championships, but their atmosphere resembling a time bomb is a story for another day.
McLaren secured the services of Fernando Alonso, who is an absolute legend of the sport. However, they didn’t have the means to manage a superstar like him, neither could they provide him with a competitive car.
It also didn’t help that their other driver, Stoffel Vandoorne, was essentially a non-factor in the team. The team was called the Alonso team, and for good reason.
Alonso’s growing influence and the team’s floundering position were ingredients for a disastrous recipe. McLaren ended up finishing behind Renault and newcomers Haas, which was an embarrassing result for them. It led to Alonso announcing his retirement from the sport, and if you have seen Drive to Survive, you will know he was unhappy and frustrated with McLaren.
Losing a driver of Alonso’s calibre is a blow to any team. McLaren struggled to find a replacement, and ended up parting with Vandoorne as well. This was rock-bottom for the Woking outfit. And then, they woke up and chose reinvention.
McLaren convinced Renault’s Carlos Sainz that they had a competitive rebuilding project, and roped him into the team. They also announced that Sainz would be partnered with up-and-coming rookie Lando Norris.
At the time, pundits disapproved of this bold move, saying that they were destroying Sainz’s career, jumping the gun with Norris, or both. However, what followed from that season until the present day is one of the greatest examples of rebuilding a stagnant company from top to bottom.
Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, wanted to make the McLaren name relevant and successful again. He hired Andreas Seidl as the Team Principal, and hedged his bets on Sainz and Norris to lead the team to the glory days.
From then on, it was a PR and racing masterclass, as McLaren went from a toxic fringe team to a team everyone has at least in the top three of their favourite teams list.
The first step was producing an improved car. This was done in good fashion, keeping the Renault engine that had served them faithfully.
Moreover, the team’s approach towards the process was different. This was no longer the Alonso team. McLaren had two talented drivers who could deliver, and they backed them both to do well.
The friends we made along the way
The biggest factor in McLaren returning to relevancy was the budding relationship between Sainz and Norris. The camaraderie between the two drivers was a shining example of driver management, and the pair became the envy of other teams.
This also meant that McLaren never had to worry about inflated egos and teammates taking each other out (cough….HAM-ROS/RIC-VER…..cough). The team’s staff also seemed to have moved up a gear in both urgency and execution under the leadership of Brown and Seidl.
Off the track, McLaren strived to rid itself of its uptight and unlikeable image. A team like Ferrari, for example, was all business on and off the track. This was and still is not relatable to fans.
Fans clamoured for teams that they could smile, laugh and cry with, and McLaren wanted to be that team. It was mighty impressive how they overhauled everything, starting with their social media. Everything took on a lighter tone, and was far from the stiff and unrealistic words we are conditioned to expect.
McLaren’s Instagram, Twitter and YouTube content went from robotic to relatable, and the way their social media is a racing, professional, and a complete shitpost zone all at once is a testament to the wonderful PR done by the team.
The banter of Norris mixed with the cool nature of Sainz was at the forefront of everything McLaren did. Suddenly, everyone wanted to root for them, because their drivers were so likeable.
The team itself started shedding its uptight image and became fun and relatable. Relatable is the key word, because F1 fans of the new era want drivers and teams they can root for, but not for the reasons of old.
They want to feel like they belong with that team, and McLaren with Norris and Sainz and their reinvented presence in all spheres of F1 was that team.
Onwards and upwards
Two successful seasons with Norris and Sainz at the helm saw McLaren secure P3 in the Constructors’ Championship, their best result in many years. Fans were happier for the McLaren resurgence than they were for Mercedes’ victory or Red Bull’s season.
Sainz was signed by Ferrari soon after, but he had played a big part in helping the Papaya team rebuild. And just as we thought McLaren couldn’t win our hearts any more than they already had, they went ahead and paid the best tribute one could pay to a departing driver.
Currently, McLaren are third in the Constructors’ Championship, and are enjoying their best season in years. They signed fan favourite Daniel Ricciardo to replace Sainz, and his 1000-watt smile made McLaren more likeable than ever.
Moreover, McLaren won a race for the first time since 2012, when Ricciardo and Norris took a historic 1-2 for the team, a true payoff to three years of hard work and reinvention.
Even when they heartbreakingly missed out on another win in Russia, the F1 community was vocal in their support for the team. Perception of the team had done a complete 180, from despicable to lovable.
McLaren’s trajectory is well and truly on the rise, and they are one step away from being championship contenders. The great thing about this team is that it is a team that everyone can get behind, whether it is McLaren ultras or new fans of the sport.
That in itself is a great achievement for the British marque, and one of the best examples on how reinvention and adaptability are two very defining traits not just in sport, but also in life. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?