Patricio O'Ward, McLaren, IndyCar, 2020

First IndyCar, next stop Formula E and WEC? Why McLaren is branching out beyond F1

2021 F1 season

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McLaren today confirmed it has an option to enter the Formula E world championship in 2022.

The announcement shows the team is seriously considering entering another series, having already expanded beyond F1 into IndyCar with a full-season, two-car campaign last year. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has also previously said they are seriously considering an entry into the World Endurance Championship under its incoming new rules set.

It may seem a strange move for a once-dominant Formula 1 team which has now gone more than eight years without a grand prix victory. Should they not be focussing all their efforts on ending what is by far the longest win-less spell in their history?

McLaren’s diversification into other series is just one way in which the team under Brown contrasts sharply with its strategy under the control of his predecessor Ron Dennis.

McLaren acquires option to enter Formula E in 2022
Take its warmer social media presence, seen in its genuinely heartfelt farewell messages to Carlos Sainz Jnr and, previously, the playing up of the chummy relationship between him and Lando Norris.

Of course, another contrast it that the team is yet to recapture anything like the success of its heyday under Dennis. But, to be fair to the current administration, it was nowhere near those heights when Dennis was edged out and Brown installed.

McLaren has been on a steadily upward trajectory since then, culminating in its best constructors championship position for eight years in 2020. But turning the Formula 1 ship around is not the work of a moment.

This is the context within which its embrace of other championships can be understood. Importantly, Brown’s arrival coincided with changes within Formula 1 itself. Bernie Ecclestone previously discouraged F1 drivers and teams from spreading into other championships, but since his replacement Liberty Media has been more open in this regard.

Fernando Alonso, IndyCar, McLaren Andretti, Indianapolis 500, 2017
Alonso led on McLaren’s return to IndyCar
Brown and McLaren were quick to exploit this new opportunity. With a disillusioned Fernando Alonso on his hands in 2017, pedalling another uncompetitive Honda-powered McLaren F1 car, Brown allowed his star driver to miss no less a race than the Monaco Grand Prix to tackle the Indianapolis 500 for the team.

Michael Andretti expanded his team to add a McLaren-branded entry for Alonso. The fact Andretti’s team also used Honda power smoothed Alonso’s entry into the race.

McLaren almost produced a shock result on their return to a race they last won in 1976. Alonso put his car fifth on the grid and led 27 laps before retiring; his Andretti stable-mate Takuma Sato took the victory.

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However McLaren’s attempt two years later to tackle the race without the assistance of another team ended in humiliating failure: Alonso did not qualify. Undeterred, McLaren pressed ahead with plans to enter the full IndyCar season in 2020, but elected to join up with an existing team again.

This proved a smart move. Its union with Schmidt Peterson, forming the new McLaren SP team, delivered everything but a victory. Patricio O’Ward, in his first full season as an IndyCar driver, was a revelation, and ended the year with a pole position, a fastest lap… and three second places.

Fernando Alonso, McLaren, IndyCar, Indianapolis, 2019
McLaren’s return to the Brickyard in 2019 was a disaster
But his fourth place in the championship underlined the quality of the team’s first season. Team mate Oliver Askew’s year was injury-affected, and his place has been taken by the well-regarded Felix Rosenqvist, who denied O’Ward victory at Road America last July.

“Everything that we hope to achieve in year one, we achieved,” summed up Brown at the end of the year.

Taking McLaren into IndyCar raises the team’s profile in a major market at a fraction of the cost of running a Formula 1 team. There are also valuable crossovers with its Formula 1 project in terms of resources and sponsors, as Brown explained.

“We have integrated McLaren racing into Arrow McLaren SP,” he said. “We have a great team back at the MTC [McLaren Technology Centre] dedicated to IndyCar and also spend a lot of time at the IndyCar races.

“Commercially, Arrow Electronics is the title sponsor of our IndyCar team. We hoped to expose some of the IndyCar partners to Formula 1 [and] we’ve done that.

“Arrow joined us in F1 and we just announced a long-term extension. On the flip-side BAT [British American Tobacco], a very important partner to us in Formula 1, are involved in our IndyCar team.

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“So finishing fourth in the championship with Pato, almost winning a race, getting a handful of podiums, two exciting drivers and commercially our Formula 1 partners supporting our IndyCar team, our IndyCar partners, supporting our Formula 1 team, that kind of ticked all the boxes that we’d hoped to do when we laid out the criteria of why we wanted to get into IndyCar.”

Pato O'Ward, McLaren SP, IndyCar, St Petersburg, 2020
O’Ward signed off 2020 with another second for McLaren
Their experience in IndyCar may prove a model for a future Formula E team. McLaren will consider whether to partner with an existing Formula E team as part of its evaluation of a potential move into the series.

A Formula E programme could also present McLaren the opportunity to relocate staff from its Formula 1 team. This will be necessary following the introduction of a $145 million budget cap this year and its subsequent reduction by $5 million over each of the next two seasons. The possibility of doing this through Formula E will also be considered by the team.

Brown’s eagerness to see McLaren represented at the top level in other major motorsports may not stop there. He has also indicated the World Endurance Championship’s new Hypercar regulations could entice them into the endurance racing series. Here too the potential to place ex-F1 staff exists.

While the budget cap won’t force F1’s smaller teams to scale down their operations, it will do for the likes of McLaren. Similar or larger teams like Red Bull and Ferrari have other options to redeploy resources from F1 in the shape of sister teams (Red Bull’s AlphaTauri) or new supply deals with customers (a new division at Ferrari will provide parts for Haas).

Less than a year ago McLaren was scaling back its operation, including a small portion of its Racing division, as a result of the pandemic. Now, with the new backing from MSP Sports Capital announced last month, it seems McLaren’s goal is to become a leading competitor in a range of top-level motor racing disciplines.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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11 comments on “First IndyCar, next stop Formula E and WEC? Why McLaren is branching out beyond F1”

  1. Might as well try and win races somewhere else with the spare budget cap money! I did watch more Indycar races last season to see how Pato and Mclaren got on. I’m in the market for a new supercar, so I don’t think they get much benefit from me haha

  2. I rather like that McLaren has branched off into other categories. It’s a good advertisement for F1 as fans of other categories may be interested in checking out the team’s origins in F1 in the same way fans of the F1 team might follow them into other categories. I’d certainly be interested in following a McLaren FE team.

    I am surprised other teams haven’t followed suit in experimenting with other racing series, especially Red Bull given the success former drivers of theirs have enjoyed in FE or Honda’s involvement in IndyCar. As say it’s a good advertisement for cross pollination of sorts between categories and the survival and popularity of one can benefit and grow others too.

    1. For me it feels like a lack of focus on McLaren’s part. I have a lot more respect for a team like Red Bull who knows full well that F1 is the most glamourous sport and fully focuses on it.
      Every FE fan will know who the reigning F1 champion is, while the majority of F1 fans has absolutely no idea who the reigning FE champion is.

      1. Luckily you are not a manager in one of those brands.

      2. Er… Redbull are a drinks manufacture, they also have 2 F1 teams, air races, soap box races, and are involved in many many sports series all over the world

        How is that focusing on F1?

        Sure, if Christian & Helmut was asked to focus on all of that then sure, it their not. Just like Andreas is not being asked to run Indy, WEC & FE teams either

  3. @rocketpanda, that’s a good point. There needs to be an “entry point” for fandom (which is why I love the Drive To Survive TV series, it’s a great way to introduce F1 to those who may otherwise have no exposure to it – it’s not like the ‘old days’ where it would typically on in the background on a Sunday).

    I have been wanting to watch other racing championships, and as a fan of McLaren, I’d certainly be more likely to watch Indycar or Formula E given that I’d already have a level of emotional investment in a team. If more people tune into IndyCar/Formula E, and F1 gets reciprocal interest then it can only be a good thing.

  4. I think Zak and McLaren have done a terrific job with their IndyCar involvement. It seems like a no brainer to me to diversify and grow exposure in other areas, especially when the States are their biggest market. Plus, it gives them an opportunity to win the biggest race in the world. Why other teams (Ferrari still contemplating) haven’t done the same is a mystery to me.

  5. I didn’t realise McLaren supplied the battery used in Formula E. Because of that then it isn’t surprising to see McLaren are considering racing a car in Formula E.
    I see Formula E charge their cars’ batteries by running glycerine powered diesel type generators, the glycerine being a byproduct of bio-diesel production. Maybe F1 should consider allowing teams to use glycerine in their engines as an alternative to 95 Octane petrol.

    1. @drycrust Are you really suggesting diesel engine tech for the next gen F1 engines? Be novel I have to give you that.

  6. The problem is people still see McLaren as an F1 team, they are not any longer, they are car manufacturer

    Zak’s focus is no longer on McLaren F1, that is Andreas’ job so McLaren are not diluting anything

    In fact branching into other series is not only essential for their future as a car company that will one day surpass Ferrari, it also gives them the depth of experience they need to strengthen the team under the new budget cap era with places to grow and nurture talent and build partnerships with sponsors worldwide

  7. It seems that McLaren is indeed repositioning itself in the market as a full blown car manufacturer rather than “just” an F1 team. Makes complete sense for them to penetrate similar markets to those that Ferrari have or have been involved in.

    Using that as a vehicle to redeploy and nurture talent is a nice innovative way of managing their budget cap as well – much better than the usual corporate world of “lets just dump people out via redundancy”

    I don’t see it in any way impacting the focus of their F1 division but rather a way of enhancing their brand.

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