The feel-good factor returned to McLaren over a 2023 British Grand Prix weekend that saw Lando Norris lead the race and secure a season-best P2 finish. Not only did the home hero delight the 140,000-strong Silverstone crowd, but rookie teammate Oscar Piastri also repaid the faith of McLaren CEO Zak Brown by forging a two-pronged McLaren attack with a P4 finish, his highest in the Australian's fledgling F1 career.
Formula One's 'big three' teams of Red Bull, Mercedes, and Ferrari have had new company in the fight for podiums early in 2023, but it wasn't McLaren joining them. Aston Martin stepped up and broke into the upper echelons in the earlier races this year, despite McLaren knocking on the frontrunner door for the past few seasons.
Rather than fade away demoralized by a fellow British team leapfrogging them up the order, the Woking-based squad has knuckled down and turned up their home race with a sizeable upgrade package. The closeness of the chasing pack behind Red Bull means that every tenth counts in F1 2023, and those gains paid dividends at Silverstone, much to the delight of the rapturous home crowd.
McLaren Team Principal Andrea Stella promised that the MCL60's extensive aero upgrades would dramatically change the car's performance across the hectic July, and he wasn't wrong. The four-race month sees two double-header events, with Austria back-to-back to Britain and McLaren scoring well. Next are the upcoming Hungary-Belgium weekends.
The floor, sidepod inlet, engine cover, and more bodywork alterations made their way onto Piastri's car for the British Grand Prix after lead driver Norris enjoyed the changes at the Red Bull Ring one week earlier. Their effects were immediately noticeable. Norris qualified and finished P4 at Austria, even taking a P3 Sprint Shootout slot, while Piastri slumped out in Q2 and SQ1. When the Aussie got the same improvements to car #81 at Silverstone, he qualified P3 and finished P4.
Even better for McLaren is that there is more to come. Norris again ran a different spec MCL60 from Piastri at the British GP, with a new front wing and nosecone, plus more reworking around the rear end's suspension. Should McLaren find that these changes meet their CAD expectations — and taking P2 would suggest they will — we can expect both drivers to run the upgrades in Hungary.
Whether the trend of Norris getting to try updates one race ahead of Piastri will continue into the Hungaroring's race is unclear, but Stella suggested that almost every aerodynamic element will receive reworking. That should mean McLaren's two racers will have a very different car at the Belgium Grand Prix compared to the one that struggled for race pace when they started the season.
Piastri finding his comfort level in Formula One so rapidly is also a boost to McLaren. For all of Daniel Ricciardo's reputation and race-winning know-how, the star signing Zak Brown hoped for didn't materialize in the two seasons of working together (aside from that memorable Monza afternoon).
I don't believe Ricciardo suddenly turned into a poor driver, but something about the environment or McLaren's development direction clearly didn't work, and that's not the case with their younger Australian driver.
With Piastri, McLaren can do what they did with Norris in 2019 and mold a talented young driver into what they want. Norris still has the perception of being a newcomer, but 2023 is his fifth F1 season, making his relative experience to Piastri equivalent to what Carlos Sainz was to Norris when the two joined forces in 2019.
Sainz soundly outscored Norris 96-49 in that rookie season, and there's a similar percentage split between Norris and Piastri in 2023 of 42 points to 17 in Norris' favor. With McLaren's guidance, Norris has turned into one of the hottest talents in the sport, and Piastri looks to be treading the same path. That's encouraging for the team today and for their longer-term future.
Of course, one swallow doesn't make a summer, and a single podium and one high-flying qualifying session isn't the signal that McLaren will suddenly chase down Red Bull. Nonetheless, it's a cause for celebration whether you're a papaya-wearing fan or just after better racing. Verstappen aside, Formula One was already at its most competitive level since perhaps 2012, with Ferrari, Mercedes, Aston Martin, and Alpine all fighting for points; McLaren joining the party is a superb sign.
No one would've expected to see Norris or Piastri in the post-qualifying or post-race interviews at Silverstone, and it's that unpredictability that might help keep the new audience that Formula One found in recent years. The era of HAM-BOT-VER (Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, and Max Verstappen) making the podium is well and truly behind us. Don't be surprised to see Norris or Piastri deliver more silverware later this year.