Through the long lens of history, a racing car will be judged on its results, with everything else fading into the background … but sometimes, that background is important. It certainly was with the MCL34. The car took McLaren to fourth in the 2019 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship: a respectable result but not one that will put it in the pantheon of McLaren greats. And yet, within the team, the MCL34 is regarded with great affection: the car that kickstarted a new era.
The Technical Regulations didn’t scream ‘fresh start’. In a bid to increase overtaking opportunities (or, at least, stall the decline) there was a minor warming-over of the aerodynamic regs. Front wings were wider, taller and pushed further forward, end-planes reshaped and aerodynamic furniture removed from above the main plane. A wider, higher rear wing was also added, while barge boards were made smaller. The changes were not dramatic, rather they were a teaser subset of the bigger aerodynamic package ultimately introduced in 2022, and were viewed as such: part of a holding pattern while the revolution was fine-tuned.
For McLaren, however, change was in the air. Pat Fry had returned to the team on an interim basis as Engineering Director to oversee the MCL34 project, before handing-off to incoming Technical Director James Key, who would manage the in-season development of the car. There were two new drivers in the cockpit, with Carlos Sainz arriving from Renault and homegrown talent Lando Norris setting out on his rookie season in F1.
The change too, was philosophical. “The team did a really good job of stepping back and having a very honest look at what were the issues in 2018,” recalls technical director James Key. “I only joined in March, but people were still talking about  because it was a painful period for everyone. It was a mix of concepts that didn’t really work – either aerodynamically or simply because they didn’t provide what the car really needed, or follow where development trends were going. The team did a good job of just stepping away from that and thinking: what did we get wrong? Let’s try to understand that. The reset button was pressed; ties with the -33 were cut, and the team headed in a new direction with the MCL34.”
The car launched on February 14th at the MTC, 34 members of staff from across the business grabbing a handful of sheet for the livestreamed reveal. The livery was a progression from 2018’s theme, albeit with rather more blue encroaching from the rear wing and onto the papaya engine cover. The following day, at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the car had a shakedown, before winter testing began in earnest on Monday 18th. After eight days of testing, fifth on the timesheet and sixth on the lap count, the MCL34 was as close to the middle of the pack as it could possibly be – but the sense from the team was that there was more to unlock.
As had been the case during the winter testing cycle, the early races demonstrated flashes of good form mixed-in with some obvious teething problems. The positive was that Lando made it through to Q3 at his debut race in Australia, the negative was that the team had three DNFs in the opening three races, two other non-scoring finishes and languished seventh in the championship. Lando did, however, score his, and the car’s, first F1 points in Bahrain, finishing P7.
The development focus for the new car was on critical zones around the front wheels, the front of the sidepods; the front of the floor. Areas in which McLaren had previously diverged markedly from the competition. Fixing these problem areas wasn’t the work of a moment and in the early races it was clear that the car struggled on front-limited circuits – but the pace of development was aggressive, upgrades were arriving quickly (and would continue to flow deeper into the season than would usually be the case), and once the kinks were ironed-out, the results started to flow. Round Four in Azerbaijan saw the MCL34’s first double-points finish, a feat it managed a further seven times across the 21-race season. Seventh and eighth in Baku moved the team up to fourth position in the Constructors’ Championship where we stayed for the rest of the year.
‘Best of the Rest’ is a back-handed compliment but a compliment nonetheless. That was frequently the position of the MCL34: at the head of the midfield and, as the season wore on, sometimes occupying No Man’s Land between the midfield and the top three teams, or occasionally able to compete against that top three, picking-up a string of fifth and sixth places across the middle of the season, moving the team well head of the Renault works team, suppliers of the E-Tech 19 1.6l hybrid V6 engine powering the MCL34.
The best was saved for very-nearly last, courtesy of Carlos Sainz scoring McLaren’s first podium of the season – and first podium since 2014 – at the penultimate round of the Championship, finishing third in Brazil after a magnificent run through the field from P20 on the grid. Or, at least, that’s what the records say. In a topsy-turvy race, Carlos actually finished fourth, promoted to third as darkness fell on Interlagos following a stewards’ enquiry which handed Lewis Hamilton a five-seconds penalty. The podium ceremony was long done, but this wasn’t going to deter the team who, with gloom descending on São Paulo, and to an audience consisting almost entirely of bemused cleaners in the grandstand opposite, grabbed the appropriate trophy and champagne, gate-crashed the podium and had a ceremony of their own – with rather less decorum and rather more bouncing up and down than is traditional. Thank you MCL34!
In the final analysis, it’s the results that matter. The car propelled McLaren from sixth to fourth in the Constructors’ Championship, scoring comfortably more than twice as many points as its predecessor. It ended a run of four seasons without a podium finish and imbued the team with a sense of optimism. A corner had been turned, a direction was set and, thanks to the MCL34, the team was moving in the right direction.