The business of Formula 1: inside McLaren HQ
F1 is undergoing a kind of revolution, with new rules, new tech, new teams, and new fans - boosted by the Netflix show Drive to Survive. Ahead of the first race of the season in Bahrain, the FT goes behind the scenes at the McLaren Technology Centre, where the team is competing to get their cars back to the front of the grid
Produced, filmed and edited by Joe Sinclair; reported and presented by Samuel Agini; filmed by Petros Gioumpasis, graphics by Russell Birkett; additional footage from McLaren Racing, Getty, Reuters
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It's known as the pinnacle of motorsport. The fastest, the most technically advanced, with a long, glamorous, but sometimes controversial and chequered history. And more than 70 years since the first race Formula 1 is undergoing a kind of revolution. New rules, new tech, new teams, and a surge in popularity.
But what does it take to build an F1 team? To find out we're leaving the drivers on the track to go behind the scenes at McLaren HQ. They're celebrating their 60th anniversary and trying to rebuild into a championship-winning team.
This is Zak Brown, a former racing driver, who then founded the world's biggest motorsports marketing agency. When he joined McLaren as CEO in late 2016 the car and the business were both struggling to compete.
Morale was very poor. Everything was really poor. When I entered, it was our worst year in the history of McLaren, finishing ninth in the championship. We had very little in the way of sponsorship. We had really lost our way. We were a struggling Formula 1 team.
McLaren's glory days were in the '80s and '90s with drivers like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. It hasn't won the Constructors' Championship since 1998 and the Drivers' Championship since 2008 with Lewis Hamilton. Winning brings glory, more prize money, and bigger commercial deals.
In 2022, McLaren finished a disappointing fifth out of the current list of 10 teams, and parted ways with Daniel Ricciardo after the driver/team combination failed to live up to its promise. But Brown says they've come a long way.
I now fast forward. We have a car with some of the best partners in the world, the Googles, Coca-Colas, Dell, Cisco, Goldman Sachs. We're back to winning races. At this point, it's only been one, a close call in one other race. But we're getting back towards the front.
In 2017, Liberty Media became F1's new owners in an $8bn deal. Under the American media group revenues have increased - $1.8bn in the first nine months of 2022 versus $1.5bn in the same period in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit.
They've introduced a number of changes designed to make racing more competitive and to entice new manufacturers and investors. These changes include a cost cap for spending on the car, which was reduced to $135mn this year.
I think a cost cap was critical. All these Formula 1 teams were losing a lot of money. And it was kind of a game of who can afford to lose the most? And you see the value of these franchises now growing rapidly, as they should be on par with the NFLs, and the Premier League teams, given the size and stature of our sport.
In F1 the drivers attract a lot of the hype. McLaren will be relying on 23-year-old British-Belgian racing driver Lando Norris, and rookie Australian Oscar Piastri. But what about the rest of their 700-strong team? In the race bay mechanics are building the new car. Teams keep their tech top secret. So we're told not to film under the shell.
I'm Jono Brookes, director of Formula 1 build here at McLaren. Our race really starts as soon as the chequered flag falls at the previous race. The cars get back here as quickly as possible. We do everything that we need to do to the cars, upgrade them, swap parts out, reliability fixes. And then we get the cars back out to the race team where they get built up at the track.
Hi. I'm Spencer Ford, head of metallic machining and additive manufacturing.
In the machine shop they make all the metal components for the car.
So we have a mix of five-axis machines and also multi-tasking lathes. And we use a variety of those to make the parts in the most appropriate, fastest, way we can. Parts for the body work, suspension, gearbox, from the smallest washer to the largest suspension component.
In this clean room the team is producing carbon fibre components used in the chassis, wings, and gearboxes.
My name is Ross Hood. I am the director of composites manufacturing at McLaren Racing. Anything produced out of carbon fibre we can do in this room. It's quite a simple process. We do lots of it through layers and layers of prepreg carbon fibre. It's built up with lots of thin layers of carbon. We lay them on one on top of the other in an organised manner.
We cook them in a large pressure cooker. And they'll come out, and we'll get solid carbon fibre components that we can then use to make fast, light, very strong parts for our Formula 1 car.
The final step is laminating, where the all-important sponsorship stickers are added. Nowadays, they use vinyl wrap, not paint. It saves on weight, but also makes the design adaptable.
The sticker on the car is almost to let everyone know that we have this great partnership. But what goes on behind the scenes, the amount of business that we've driven for our business-to-business partners, introducing them to governments and other Fortune 500 companies, to doing a lot of business with them ourselves, to helping them build their brand.
Andrea Stella is McLaren's new team principal. So what's his role?
You have to make sure that these 700 people are all aligned in what is the vision, the mission, the objectives. And all this needs to be incredibly simply stated. Make sure that everyone is on the same page.
Under Liberty Media the vision of F1 is expansion, building on a global fan base. Human rights groups have criticised the sport's decision to host races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as it pushes into the Middle East, with accusations of "sportswashing". But F1 also has its sights on the US. This year, a Las Vegas Grand Prix is on the calendar to add to Miami and Austin.
And the number of US viewers is on the up. The sport has also been boosted by the Netflix show Drive to Survive, which taps into the drama on and off the track.
2022 represents a new dawn for Formula 1, the biggest overhaul that the regulations have ever had.
Why the fans have responded and we found so many new fans is we've let people in behind the scenes of how actually a Formula 1 team operates.
There's always an element of emotions and passions that drive individuals. I'm sure Drive to Survive is playing this element in the new generation, which is great to see.
It's not just the drivers who thrive on passion and competition. At McLaren HQ, everyone is working with the aim of taking on leading constructors Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes.
The stakes are high. US Investment Group MSP Sports Capital is putting £185mn into McLaren to help fund their return to the top. It's allowed the team to spend on a new wind tunnel to develop the aerodynamics of the car. But the tunnel isn't ready just yet, and will take time to pay off.
If you don't go to the limit in terms of capitalising on your potential, simply, you cannot be competitive to score podiums or win in Formula 1.
We always have to constantly look at ways that you can get a competitive advantage on the other teams. And everyone is trying to do that. And it's not just technical. It can be politics as well. If someone's got something, you decide whether you protest it or you copy it.
You're a competitor in a really competitive world-class sport. And if you are not running all of the time, you're just standing still. And if you're standing still in Formula 1, you're at the back of the grid. So it is relentless all the time.
Things get heated. But that's the nature of what we do. Just like the drivers are in competition with each other, I'm in competition with the build director at other teams. We get judged every two weeks on our performance, which is unique in business.
The whole team is really excited to see their parts performing on track, and obviously, running reliably.
So we are probably the really fast legs under the pond when a duck's swimming. And you only ever see the beautiful duck at the circuit. But yeah, we are running really fast here, collaboratively working together to make sure this all happens and they can go and race cars each weekend.
It's a hundred-lap duel, scenic but dangerous...
F1 is a sport where history becomes legend. But what of the future? Ford will re-enter the fray in 2026. It's hoping to showcase its technology as rules on net-zero exhaust emissions come into play. And F1 as a whole has pledged to go net zero by 2030.
However, it's not clear how this can be achieved, not only because of race emissions, but also because of the carbon footprint caused by F1's huge travelling circus moving people, cars, and equipment by land, sea, and air to more than 20 races around the world.
One thing that is clear is that if McLaren is going to start winning championships, it needs to develop, as well as race, faster than the competition.
Trying to close the gap to catch our competition means we're going to have to actually out develop them because they're not sitting still.
You actually need to start thinking about the '26 car. That's where we want to put the team in condition to have more capacity to deal with these challenges because that's what's required if you want to compete at the top.
History echoes through the sport. But it takes fast legs under the water to keep a team heading in the right direction for the future.