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Analysis

Why McLaren has cause for optimism despite tough Formula E baptism

Taking over the title-winning Mercedes entry and its past pedigree in motorsport meant there was plenty of expectation for McLaren's entry into Formula E. But while its Nissan-powered premiere was lacking in results, there's confidence in the organisation that it can contend closer to the front with a second crack of the whip

Jake Hughes, McLaren, e-4ORCE 04

The saying goes that the facts don’t lie, which means when looking at the raw statistics, McLaren’s maiden season in Formula E will likely be judged overall as not a good one. Eighth in the teams’ championship – some 216 points behind champions Envision Racing – and only one rostrum across the 16 races is hardly something to write home about for a racing entity with such a successful motorsport heritage.

From the outside looking in, this was a squad with winning potential having acquired the foundations of the all-conquering Mercedes outfit that for two consecutive seasons had won the drivers’ and teams’ championships. When the German manufacturer decided that Formula E no longer ticked the boxes, motorsport CEO Toto Wolff and team principal Ian James helped broker a buyout from McLaren. The British squad had decided that 2023 was the time to move away from the role of supplier, having provided the batteries to the championship’s Gen2 machines, and into the category as its own entry.

With James remaining at the helm and majority of the staff also staying put, it would have been easy to assume the team would once again occupy the top step of the podium. In truth, though, it was never going to be as simple as that, not least because of having to adapt to the new Gen3 machine, a new Nissan powertrain due to being a customer outfit, as well as a completely new driver line-up.

Realistically the previous success was always going to be a difficult act to repeat, although initially it looked like things had clicked into place from the very outset of the new era. Formula E rookie Jake Hughes, a reserve driver for Mercedes previously, was given the call-up and duly delivered on the faith put in him straight away as he challenged towards the front on his debut in Mexico City before dropping to fifth by the flag.

Three-time DTM champion Rene Rast joined the team after a season away from the all-electric championship and recorded another fifth place for McLaren at the next round in Diriyah. The German followed this up the next day with third while Hughes took eighth after starting from pole in just his third Formula E start, all of which were encouraging signs less than a month into the campaign.

“A strong start, probably stronger than expected actually, although I had absolute confidence in the team coming over from its original form into joining the McLaren family,” says James, reflecting on the campaign.

Rast scored McLaren's first podium in Saudi Arabia, but the remainder of the campaign would go without silverware

Rast scored McLaren's first podium in Saudi Arabia, but the remainder of the campaign would go without silverware

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

“We knew we were hitting the reset button in terms of a new generation of car with the Gen3 car, a steep learning curve of that. We also transitioned to becoming a customer team – obviously we’re very much reliant on the performance of the package your manufacturer provides you – and we had two new drivers in Jake and Rene.

“So a lot of unknowns and therefore our expectations were measured, but as I say we came out of the starting blocks quite strong. I think that’s down to what I’ve often termed, the operational excellence of the team. It’s looking after the details.

“But as the season’s progressed I think it’s also fair to say we’ve not kept up with meeting our expectations. Mid-season I think as others started to get to grips with Gen3 there was a convergence if you like of performance, and I suppose the stronger packages started to come to the top.”

The performance drop-off was noticeable, and steep. While Hughes scored seven times in the first 10 races, which included a second pole position at Monaco before briefly leading, he only finished in the points once over the final six outings with 10th in the first London E-Prix.

"I’m not overly concerned, and I say that because there’s been no mistake made twice and as long as we’re learning, as long as we’re continuing to develop then we can make sure we put ourselves in a strong position going forward" Ian James

Rast had an even more torrid time, failing to score a single point over the remaining 10 races of the campaign and eventually finishing 13th in the drivers’ standings, one spot and eight points behind Hughes. Arguably of more concern than a lack of results was a general lack of pace in the second half of the season. Rast’s fight for a podium in the opening Rome race became the only notable highlight before he retired with a software issue, compounding McLaren’s misery that day after Hughes had crashed in qualifying and was unable to take the start.

“If I reflect on the last third of the season, if I’m quite honest I think there’s been a few errors on our part,” admits James. “Operationally there’s been a couple of driver related issues and although I hate to use it, probably a little bit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as well which is just part and parcel of motorsport.

“A combination of factors but at the same time I’m not overly concerned, and I say that because there’s been no mistake made twice and as long as we’re learning, as long as we’re continuing to develop then we can make sure we put ourselves in a strong position going forward.”

James remains optimistic heading into McLaren’s sophomore season. For a start, there’s some stability as the team will continue to use Nissan’s powertrain – the Japanese manufacturer showcasing an upturn in form over the final rounds which will provide renewed hope for its customer team.

McLaren's form dipped as the season went on, but James hopes continuity in the package and Bird's experience will lift the squad

McLaren's form dipped as the season went on, but James hopes continuity in the package and Bird's experience will lift the squad

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

And on the driver front, Hughes has been retained for the upcoming campaign having impressed overall in his maiden season. The importance of stability is something that McLaren CEO Zak Brown was all too aware of heading into 2023.

“One of our big deciding factors in deciding to move forward [with purchasing the old Mercedes FE team] was the fact that with the acquisition of the team, came along the team started by Ian,” says Brown. “I think with all racing teams, any business for that matter, you want stability, while bringing in some fresh ideas. So having Ian and his team run it, that was a perfect scenario and we just want to build on that.”

PLUS: How a passion for the past is driving McLaren's pursuit of F1 titles

That ‘fresh idea’ is having a new face in the team alongside Hughes next season. After just one season together Rast and McLaren mutually agreed to part ways after his lacklustre campaign, with his seat filled by Sam Bird – the Briton formally announced last week having lost his ride at Jaguar to Nick Cassidy.

In Bird, McLaren has one of the most experienced drivers as part of its roster as the Briton has competed in the all-electric championship since its inception in 2014, during which time he’s taken 11 wins. In fact, he’s one of only five drivers to have made more than 100 starts in the championship, although noticeably the only one out of Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi, Jean-Eric Vergne and Antonio Felix da Costa not to have won a Formula E title.

He comes to McLaren off the back of a difficult 2023 campaign where he failed to match team-mate Mitch Evans, but there were still glimpses of speed and a move to McLaren could reinvigorate a driver who on his day is more than capable of winning races.

If anyone is able to extract the best out of the Briton it will be James, who has proven with Mercedes he is up to the task of turning a team into a winning outfit. Given McLaren’s successful history and taste for winning, he will be expected to do the same for the British squad sooner rather than later in Formula E but already has the pieces in place to move the team forward in 2024.

James has kept faith in Hughes for the programme's second season in creating an all-British lineup

James has kept faith in Hughes for the programme's second season in creating an all-British lineup

Photo by: Andreas Beil

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