Speaking ahead of the final race of the 2021 F1 season at a press conference with the media which included Motorlat, McLaren’s current Executive Director, Technical shared his thoughts on the MCL35M’s strengths and looked ahead to 2022. James Key only joined the Woking-based team in March 2019 but the results are starting to speak for themselves. This is a clear indication of the impact he has had.
Even though McLaren lost out on third place of the F1 Constructors’ Championship in 2021 to Scuderia Ferrari, the situation the team was in before a wheel even hit the asphalt cannot be forgotten.
Not only did McLaren have to face their well-publicised financial struggles, they were met with a unique challenge as they entered 2021 as they were the only team on the F1 grid to change the supplier of their power unit. Their decision to move from Renault power and return to Mercedes was made all the harder due to Covid-19, which forced Formula One to shut down for several months and had a huge impact on the running of the MTC.
The knock-on effect was that McLaren had less time to understand the engine installation and due to tight restrictions, a lot of the work was done from home. Nevertheless, as the result of an extraordinary effort from everyone in the hallowed halls of the MTC, not to mention excellent support from Mercedes, they did manage to successfully install a completely different power unit into their 2021 challenger. James Key was a man at the forefront of this success.
James Key started as a Technical Director in 2005 with Midland F1 Racing where at the age of 33 he was one of the youngest Technical Directors on the grid. After time served at Williams, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso, the call came from McLaren. Presently, James Key puts his wealth of experience to great use at McLaren in the role of Executive Director, Technical.
With such a turbulent run up to the season, the MCL35M package was one with areas of strengths and weaknesses. This aspect was discussed by James Key during the last F1 weekend of the 2021 season.
"From a package point of view, there were definitely some events which we knew would probably be a bit difficult for us before going there because we know our car and understand where our strengths and weaknesses lie.” Key explained. “Two really standout: Spa and Zandvoort which came together which were definitely car related and not as strong as we'd have liked it to be. We did a lot of analysis to really hammer these issues and understand what we faced.”
Questions from the floor probed further into the performance of the MCL35M and whether some of the team’s less suited tracks surprised them: “I don't think we got any surprises particularly. Zandvoort was what we expected…no big surprises, it kind of reinforced what we need." was the reply from Key.
Therefore, moving forward, what hopes are there for the future?
“Obviously with a new car next year try to make sure we encounter them with a blank sheet of paper; a legacy built in behaviours in a new car like that. We can use the data even when it's been difficult weekends to very good effect for the future I think.” Key told the media.
2021 brought McLaren sporadic podiums throughout the season as well as an unforgettable 1’2 finish at the Italian Grand Prix all the more impressive as they were the only F1 team to achieve such a feat in 2021.
Therefore, in 2022, expectation is high for the Woking-based team but are there any areas they have to specifically focus in 2022 like they did in 2021. One assumed that targeting aero efficiency and high-speed corner performance would be on the agenda again. However, James Key would clarify to the media that this performance was a consequence as opposed to a specific plan.
“We didn't actively choose to make high speed our biggest strength and then go to places like Silverstone and so on and be real quick. I think it was more a case of those strengths anyway that we had. The efficiency was kind of built from last year , we were in a similar situation there.” James Key clarified and then examined other performance aspects.
“I think what we're seeing with straight-line braking - which is one of our strengths - and high-speed corners reflects sort of the performance we can generate with the nature of the car we have.”
However, as impressive as these elements are, McLaren’s Executive Director, Technical is also aware what the team’s package was missing and this will no doubt hopefully be addressed for the 2022 campaign.
“What we're missing is... generating performance in low speed. We know why we're not quite there yet…The car isn't quite as robust as it is in the high-speed corners. What we found last year  is we had similar traits and we had it in 2019 as well. We also had a very severe wind sensitivity last year  as well. It all points to similar circumstances in the make-up of the car.
James Key also reminded the media that these problem areas were ones that McLaren were aware of before the start of the 2021 season.
“A lot of work that went into the 2021 car was to try and specifically address some of these problems; unfortunately the nature of them isn't something that's a big silver bullet where it's suddenly great. It takes a while to get them to work. You can make it work quicker and lose the strengths in other areas. That was the battle we were up against. This is why we knew Zandvoort would be difficult: a lot of low- speed corners where the grip level in low speed is really critical and we know it's a weakness of our car.
“Equally we kind of knew that Monza would be strong because almost everything is high speed apart from a certain extent Parabolica…So it all set up for us. It wasn't through choice. It was a case of building up levels of performance which we knew is kind of where we have to be and then chipping away at making that performance spread across a wider range of corners.
As with everything, the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and as such James Key knows the changes he wished he could have made. However, with new regulations on the way there is little time for regret.
“I think had we had the same regulations again, we would have exclusively looked at low speed corners as our aero development. For next year  it's such a different car, your choices are actually quite different. You're trying to achieve a similar goal with the way the car behaves; the same rules apply to what makes a car quick but the way these cars behave aero wise, mechanically and we've got the tyres to consider as well. It’s less of a choice really. We wouldn't want to be creating what we did in 2021. I think we'd want to have a more balanced situation on a wide range of tracks.”
James Key would go on to say that “The cars feel very much alive and real right now.” With more and more car launch dates being released the new wave of F1 cars becomes more real by the day and so too is the prospect that James Key and his team could have unlocked McLaren’s potential and will be a force on track to be reckoned with in 2022. We do not have to wait long now before we all find out.