Behind the scenes with Formula 1’s most popular team
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – In a week full of 10-minute meetings, perhaps it was only fitting Zak Brown got 10 minutes of calm before his race team’s weekend unraveled Sunday afternoon. Thirty-five laps into Formula 1’s Miami Grand Prix, Brown walked into his team’s hospitality room on pitlane and found a seat at a square table. Eyes glued to the two TVs on the opposite wall, he muttered very little to those around him – a mixture of coworkers wearing matching papaya-colored polos and VIPs in their high-priced beach-themed best.
As the Sky Sports race broadcast pointed out McLaren driver Lando Norris was down six spots — more than any other driver in the race — Brown’s expression was unchanged. Had you been solely focused on Brown, all that would’ve hinted at disaster on Lap 41, when Norris ran into a sputtering Pierre Gasly, sending his McLaren spinning across the track like a top, was the CEO’s head slumping into his left hand.
Had this been McLaren’s featured week on Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’, perhaps Brown would’ve been out baking in the south Florida heat in the team’s pit box, there for cameras to catch sighs of exasperation and frustration.
But with such riveting battles in the constructors’ race, as well as the drivers’ title, Brown was able to take in what he predicted Saturday would be a down weekend for ‘America’s Formula 1 team’ in relative peace.
Champion on the way:Red Bull’s Christian Horner says American F1 champ is coming. Who, when, how is uncertain.
“I think we’re a little bit further off. I think the track, the conditions, the weather maybe doesn’t suit our car,” Brown said Saturday morning during his appearance in a team principals news conference. “From what I can see so far, I think we’re going to be a little less competitive than we were in Imola.”
Two weekends prior, Norris took McLaren to its 11th podium since the start of the 2013 season – a relatively astounding accomplishment, given where the team’s two cars started the year in the Bahrain season-opener. In a race where three clearly better cars retired before the finish, series veteran Daniel Ricciardo took 14th, with Norris right behind him in 15th, both stymied by brake cooling issues that weren’t completely fixed until the second race of the season.
The 2022 F1 season-opener was just the third time in 43 races that McLaren hadn’t come away with a single point. And yet, how they’d rebounded – with 7th, 5th and 3rd-place finishes from Norris and a 6th for Ricciardo in his home Australian Grand Prix – had made it all worth it, team principal Andreas Seidl told IndyStar.
“Of course you want to avoid it, but looking back now, I think it was important for us,” Seidl said. “The sun was shining for three years, and things were always positive without a single bump in the road. What happened at the test in Bahrain was really the first test for us as a team to see if everything we’d put in place (since Seidl took over in 2019) could deal with bumps, which are normal in this sport.
“How quickly we came back as a team, with everyone staying calm and united, gives me more confidence that we’re on the right trajectory toward becoming a top team in two years. We want to be part of the generation at McLaren that hopefully manages to fight for race wins and championships again, cause that’s the dream.”
With Norris’s upward momentum and no reason to think Ricciardo’s bad luck of late (a lap-1 crash at Imola and mechanical failure at Jeddah) would continue, the team had high hopes for Formula 1’s monumental first of two race weekends in the U.S. in 2022. Throughout the weekend, Brown and Seidl brushed off the notion that their U.S.-based sponsors (Hilton, Coca-Cola, CNBC, Google’s ‘Chrome’ and ‘Android’ properties, Dell and Klipsch among them)made their performance in the first of 10 Miami GP’s any more important than any race on this year’s F1 schedule.
More in F1:How Colton Herta became a budding international racing star — and America’s Formula 1 hope
If they believe it and can hold their employees true to the mantra, perhaps Miami can be just another blip on the radar, a small bump in the road that McLaren hopes takes them to competing for championships in 2024. But in IndyStar’s weekend behind-the-scenes with McLaren in Miami, motorsports insider Nathan Brown came away with a solid feeling as to where one of F1’s foundational teams fits in the sports’ landscape off-the-track. And for better or worse, racing took a backseat.
McLaren in Miami: The life of the party
For those lucky enough, rich enough, famous enough or friendly enough to gain entrance to Miami’s F1 paddock, the series’ hierarchy among teams becomes clear within minutes. With teams’ hospitality/headquarters for the weekend ordered by finishing position in last year’s Constructor’s Championship, you know immediately where teams’ on-track status falls.
The off-track pecking order isn’t much different. Your eyes do most of the work. At the head of the line sits Mercedes, with the past eight Constructors titles and seven of the past eight Drivers champs to their name. Even thinking about crossing the threshold inside the team’s home for the weekend feels almost illegal. The hosts of Michael Jordan and Michelle Obama, among others, over the weekend will continue to be F1’s high-brow, upper-echelon clique, despite a drop in performance in 2022.
More on F1 in Miami:
Next to them, Red Bull and their media-savvy team principal Christian Horner carry an air of “put your head down and work” as they try to catch points leader Ferrari and Charlies Leclerc. Each time eventual race-winner Max Verstappen or Leclerc emerged and bee-lined for the entrance to their respective garages, you could sense the tenseness of competition already forming in what has quickly become a two-horse race through five stops on the calendar.
McLaren is where F1’s sense of celebrity and luxury is perhaps most felt. It’s where former McLaren F1 driver and current Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar driver Juan Pablo Montoya can sit at a table with his wife just outside the team’s hospitality unit and be relatively unbothered. Inside, you might bump shoulders with Michael Douglas before you make your way to the back table that PGA Tour golfers Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson made their second home most of the weekend.
McLaren HQ was where Mario Andretti often settled in for a series of interviews, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi ducked in for a quick stop Sunday afternoon and where his IndyCar teammate Colton Herta was posted up for most of four days, learning the ins and outs of F1 ahead of his testing program with the team later this year. Former NFL star-turned TV personality Michael Strahan was a regular guest – one who Brown said he first met because Strahan walked up and introduced himself in the middle of a New York City restaurant because of Brown’s major role in ‘Drive to Survive.’
Whereas other locales in the F1 paddock may have felt unattainable or relatively lonely and tame, McLaren felt welcoming and lively. The fridges stocked with aluminum bottles of water, seltzers, Coke products and niche energy drinks were largely unguarded all weekend. If you felt as if you belonged, then you probably did.
Uncertain future:Pato O’Ward unsure what lies ahead in racing: ‘It’s a question where I’ll be next year’
Don’t be mistaken – lunch for the lucky few on race day was where white and red wine flowed and plates were full of medium-rare steaks, seared fish, risotto and asparagus and tortellini. There was nothing ‘relaxed’ about it, as Brown jumped from table to table for a slew of businesses meetings, media interviews and quick catch-ups. But McLaren was where Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen could spend an hour or more and be just the right level of “celebrity” to not go ignored, but also not be hounded. Sporting a red-and-blue old-school looking McLaren Racing hat with a plain white T-shirt and blue shorts, he played the perfect look of a F1 fan in a potential future NFL MVP’s body.
And the adoration clearly went both ways between him and Ricciardo, a devoted Bills fan.
“It’s a man crush, a straight man crush, I’m not going to lie,” Ricciardo said of his affinity with the Bills QB. “He’s like a big teddy bear. When I saw him yesterday, I probably hugged him a little too long – sorry!
“I consider myself a sports nerd, and I grew up loving sports and grew an appreciation for the NFL, and Josh is growing to be a really big F1 fan. We’ve got a nice friendship now, and I think we shook on it that I’ve got to get to Buffalo – hopefully around October, before Austin, for a game.”
The meeting between two of the faces of their respective sports came days after Ricciardo forged another bond based on a love for someone’s craft – even if it had nothing to do with sports, until this weekend.
James Corden, the British TV star and host of ‘The Late Late Show’, embedded with the U.K.-based F1 team this weekend. Before he made headlines taking shots at IndyCar Saturday during a Sky Sports broadcast when he claimed, “I can do IndyCar. It’s four corners – that’s easy,” Corden took the F1 paddock by storm Thursday afternoon while taping a skit for his show.
Having talked Norris and Ricciardo into wearing sleeveless crop-top versions of their McLaren polos equipped with bright, colorful stickers, patches and jewels, the trio trotted up-and-down the paddock and in-and-out of the McLaren garage grabbing b-roll and scenes for the piece.
With cameras and boom mics scattered around and a dozen or so red-shirted Ferrari folks, watching, Corden was at one point being carried up and down the stretch of the paddock right in front of the McLaren home base by six McLaren crew members, as the comedian shouted, “Daniel, Daniel!” at the top of his lungs.
Earlier in the day, Corden joined Norris on his 3-plus-mile track walk, where the two at times crawled on all fours, ran through a series of yoga poses and had a generally “smashing good time.” The next day, he served as Ricciardo’s press officer, and behind closed doors through floor-to-ceiling glass windows, he could often be seen over the weekend bringing out belly-laughs during and after taped segments with Brown, Norris, Ricciardo and others.
“James is basically following the team around, offering his input into engineering, driver training,” Ricciardo said early in the weekend. “He feels that we should be winning races, so he’s trying to, I guess, insert himself into a top-tier kind of role in the team this weekend.
Michael Andretti:FIA, Liberty Media decision on Andretti Global may take until September
Dealing with more than on-track results
Elsewhere off-track this weekend, the mood wasn’t always so light. During a series of group media sit-downs, Brown was often fending off questions about the famous racing brand’s future in the sport. Less than a year ago, McLaren Group, the company that owns the famous supercar brand and runs the racing team that competes in F1, received nearly $800 million in investments from multiple sources to help the company recover from losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not long after that funding was in place, rumors began circulating in the motorsports world that Audi was interested in purchasing a significant stake – up to the entire company – which Brown and others have shot down. The topic was again front-of-mind in Miami with recent confirmations that two VW brands Audi and Porsche have plans to enter the series at the next major regulation changes in 2026. At a time in which most F1 team bosses are clearly uninterested in making room for additional teams, there’s some thought that either brand might be interested in buying a team.
Though they’ve returned to a solid top-4 spot on the grid in recent years, there was continued wondering in the paddock this weekend whether McLaren might be a fitting target for a buyout from another interested auto manufacturer.
“No, our shareholders are very committed to McLaren. We did have conversations with Audi, and we’re not for sale,” Brown said. “We’re doing very well on-track, and our shareholders have made substantial investments to give our team the resources we need to get back to the front. The morale on the team is really good, and we don’t have any interest in selling the racing team.
“We’re McLaren F1, and that’s what we’re going to remain. That’s our starting point, and any conversation (about anything other than that) wouldn’t get any further. We won’t consider a buyout of McLaren.”
Aside from the team’s future, Norris and Ricciardo fielded several questions Saturday night after qualifying that had very little to do with their own team. Earlier in the weekend, the FIA announced it would enforce long-standing rules against drivers wearing any jewelry in the cockpit and the need to wear approved underwear underneath their fire suites.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, the paddock’s only Black driver, was outspoken against the sudden enforcement of the jewelry rule that has been largely overlooked for years. Friday morning, he walked into his group news conference wearing several necklaces, three watches and eight rings. Though he eventually either took pieces of jewelry off or received waivers that gave a buffer to think over further options, what felt like an overt targeting of the seven-time title winner seeped into the McLaren drivers’ media availability Saturday.
More on Arrow McLaren SP:
In glaring contrast to the jewelry and underwear enforcement, the FIA had continued to ignore drivers’ pleas about installing additional Tecpro barriers (think SAFER barriers for IndyCar and NASCAR) in the tricky chicane in Turns 13-15. The section caught Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz with a hard crash in practice No. 2 Friday before Alpine’s Esteban Ocon withstood 51 Gs in a Saturday morning crash that prevented him from running during qualifying.
The FIA argued that a softer barrier would send a rebounding car farther back into the racing line and in harms way of contact from an oncoming car inside such a tight section of the track. Drivers, including Norris and Ricciardo, argued that the potential second hit would not be nearly as dangerous as running straight into a concrete wall.
“It’s a joke,” Norris said. I think some things we understand and know maybe better than they can see. We know where the risks are and where the cars are on the limit.
“I just hope we don’t need to do this, but we could easily use the (Grand Prix Drivers Association) to do these things, but I hope they’ve learned their lesson.”
When Norris then revealed the strength of the hit Ocon weathered, Ricciardo couldn’t help but sit bug-eyed. “Really??” he asked.
The pair were somewhat split on the topic of stricter jewelry enforcement. “I get we all want freedom to do what we want, and that’s the way the world’s going and everything, but if you say that I might just rock up in a T-shirt and shorts and flipflops and race like that…,” Norris said, with a clear hint of sarcasm. “It’s for safety, and if nothing happens, everything’s fne. But if something does, then it’s, ‘I told you so.’”
Ricciardo said rather simply, “We’ll all be married next week.”
But the pair had no trouble aligning behind its disapproval regarding the surface of the brand-new track – one most, if not all, of the paddock’s drivers expressed throughout the weekend.
More F1:Colton Herta says F1’s Miami Grand Prix ‘like a music festival that happens to have a race’
With his affinity to crack a joke even in the most serious times, Ricciardo said Saturday, “I don’t want to say I like the surface. The (chicane) is a little too ‘Mickey Mouse’. I know a lot of drivers feel frustrated that we’re not included in the track design or even ideas or thoughts, because I think we could help give some guidance, and there’s nothing really in it for us other than to make it more fun for everyone as well. If we win, then everyone wins.”
Norris added, “There’s so many fans here, and they expect such an amazing race, and we come to it, and they’re trying something new with the surface. … You want us to provide good racing and entertainment, and you give us a surface where they’re just trying to wing it in a way, it’s not good enough.”
‘There’s nowhere to hide’
When Brown hired McLaren’s team principal Seidl in early-2019, it was to help revitalize a program that, after spending virtually all of its F1 lifespan as a front-runner and potential championship contender, had drifted into F1’s mid-pack. After a run of top-3 finishes in the Constructors championship 13 times in 15 seasons (1998-2012), McLaren had finished 5th-or-worse six consecutive years and took 9th twice over a three-season span (2015 and 2017). A team with three combined Drivers titles on its roster with Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso was almost unrecognizable.
It’s why the prospect of a return to title contention in 2024 after the team’s state-of-the-art wind tunnel and simulator program is finished means so much. But until that happens, McLaren finds itself in this awkward in-between phase that’s bound to last through much of this season. After working its way up to 4th in 2019, McLaren bested Ferrari and took 3rd in a considerable down year for the Prancing Horses in 2020. The following year, both traded the lead in the battle for the “best of the rest” but Ferrari finished on-top in 3rd. Since, they made the most of the offseason regulation changes and sit on-top in the Constructors championship through five races.
Brown deflected the notion that an inability to keep up with Ferrari’s bounce-back was in any way a let-down, while praising his team for closing the gap on Mercedes, which sits 3rd. With a decent 15-point cushion to Alfa Romeo (5th) for McLaren, a 49-point gap to Mercedes ahead and more than 50 points more to get to Red Bull (2nd), it feels very much as if McLaren doesn’t have much to compete for in terms of its spot in the sport as a team.
“I don’t think Mercedes is achievable over the course of a year,” Brown said. “They’re an awesome team, and we’re an awesome team, but they’ve got a decent head-start on us now, and George (Russell) has been very reliable. Once Lewis gets to where he always is, I think he’ll be pretty tough to catch.
“But they’re the best benchmark for us, not only because they’ve been the best team for eight years, but we’ve got the same power unit. We’re now typically one-tenth-a-second off Lewis, and over the last five years, we were between one second or two.”
Instead, success, Brown said, would be gauged upon getting points from both cars at the end of a weekend (via two top-10 finishes) and continuing to build a foundation of consistency. In two years, instead of simply grabbing points every weekend, he’ll expect top-5s, podiums and the occasional win with regularity.
That’s why, at least from a racing perspective, Miami was a setback. The cars ran 10th (Ricciardo) and 11th (Norris) in the first practice Friday, before Norris jumped to 6th later that day in the team’s strongest session of the weekend. With the 22-year-old back in 10th for Practice No. 3 on Saturday, Ricciardo had drifted from 12th to 13th. After a mix-up in the McLaren garages during qualifying, Ricciardo left to setup his final lap late, was forced to burn up his tires just building speed on his warmup lap in order to have a chance to run a full lap at speed and ultimately didn’t drive into the top-10 for Q3.
Starting 14th, the Australian driver struggled to make it much past 10th on raw pace, and once he pitted on Lap 31, he fell back to 17th. Norris, meanwhile, found himself stuck in a string of mid-pack cars that included Haas and Aston Martin. With F1’s DRS boost system that aids trailing cars but is zeroed out with several trailing in close proximity, he had nowhere to go. Trying to pass Gasly’s damaged car with 16 laps to go, Norris’s right-rear wheel clipped the left-front of the Alpha Tauri.
The road ahead:Alexander Rossi on IndyCar future: ‘Everything for next year has been settled’
“It’s just unlucky,” he said post-race. “It’s not like we lost out on a lot of points. Maybe 8th was the best we could’ve done today. I guess we were lucky not to lose out on too much, but a few points would’ve been better than none.”
When asked his hopes for the Spanish Grand Prix later this month, Norris could only muster, “Hopefully better than here.”
Ricciardo, who finished 11th on pace but who fell back to 13th after a 5-second time penalty for overtaking while outside the track limits, summed up the team’s shortcomings succinctly. “I felt like we were more on the back foot, a little like last year’s struggles in some cases.
Seidl called it “a reality check” – a tough realization for a team earlier in the weekend he’d called “America’s F1 team,” despite Haas’ American ownership.
“We got announced on-stage (at the ‘Welcome’ event Wednesday), and with the applause we got, you could just feel it,” he said. “Without sounding arrogant, I think it was one of the loudest. You can feel that in the States, it’s ‘McLaren Land.’”
With that outpouring of love and visibility comes a heightened awareness when you struggle. It’s why Norris could stand to take a crack at Mercedes’ porpoising issues (aerodynamic issues with the car bouncing up-and-down) with a joke about his made-for-Miami basketball helmet Friday – “Maybe it would have suited (Mercedes’ George Russell) more, considering they like bouncing,” he said.
And it’s also why the broadcast noted just how silly he looked making the lonely walk back to his team’s garage with his helmet still on Sunday after his run-in with Gasly – “If he’s bored, he can bounce around that basketball on his head a bit,” a member of Sky Sports’ booth said on the broadcast.
“For us as a race team, (racing in Miami) doesn’t change anything, in terms of how we approach things,” Seidl said Thursday. “The pressure’s always on in Formula 1.
“There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to go.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.