Lando Norris, McLaren, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023

McLaren designer Key out as Brown says team must speed up its car development

2023 F1 season

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McLaren has parted ways with its technical director James Key following its disappointing start to the 2023 Formula 1 season.

The team has confirmed the impending return of David Sanchez from Ferrari as part of a reorganisation of its technical division. McLaren said in a statement the changes have been planned for several months.

Key held the role of executive technical director, which the team will divide between three people as part of a reorganisation by team principal Andrea Stella, who took charge in December. The new executive team will include Sanchez taking the role of technical director from the beginning of next year.

Peter Prodromou will take over the role of technical director for aerodynamics and Neil Houldey has been appointed to the new position of technical director for engineering and design. McLaren has also announced Piers Thynne has taken over as chief operating officer.

Key has been with McLaren since 2019
Key joined McLaren in 2019, having previously worked at Toro Rosso, to take charge of their technical division. The team rose to third in the constructors championship in 2020 but has not been as successful since F1’s technical regulations were overhauled last year, when it fell to fifth in the standings.

McLaren has endured a disappointing start to its 2023 campaign. At its launch the team played down its prospects for the start of the season, confirming it had discovered some areas for improvement with its car which it would not be able to exploit until later in the year.

At the Bahrain Grand Prix Key confirmed the team had suffered a particularly severe loss of performance as a result of the changes to the floor regulations introduced for 2023. The MCL60 has also suffered from poor aerodynamic efficiency leading to lower straight-line speeds than its rivals. The team is yet to score a point this year, though new driver Oscar Piastri reached Q3 at last weekend’s round in Saudi Arabia.

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Stella thanked Key and said he “wished him well for the future.”

“Looking ahead, I am determined and fully focused on leading McLaren back to the front of the field. Since taking on the team principal role I have been given the mandate to take a strategic approach to ensure the team is set on a long-term foundation, for us to build on over the years.

Zak Brown, McLaren CEO, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2022
Technical development “not quick enough” – Brown
“This new structure provides clarity and effectiveness within the team’s technical department and puts us in a strong position to maximise performance, including optimising the new infrastructure upgrades we have coming in 2023.

“Alongside Peter and Neil, I’m delighted to welcome David Sanchez back to the team to complete an experienced and highly specialised technical executive team, with the collective aim of delivering greater on-track car performance.

“I’m looking forward to continuing working together with Piers, who will play a fundamental role to define and deliver the plans to create an innovative and effective F1 team.”

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown said “it has been clear to me for some time that our technical development has not moved at a quick enough pace to match our ambition of returning to the front of the grid.”

“I’m pleased that, having completed a full review with Andrea, we are now able to implement the restructure required to set the wheels in motion to turn this around,” he continued. “These strategic changes ensure the long-term success of the team and are necessary to see McLaren get back to winning ways.

“We have everything coming into place now with our people and infrastructure and alongside an exciting driver line-up, I’m determined to see McLaren get back to where we should be.”

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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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49 comments on “McLaren designer Key out as Brown says team must speed up its car development”

  1. And they think that is going to help … I think way to fast they should wait for 6 races before doing firing …

    1. It’s harder to wait when it’s your money on the line… I’ve no way of knowing how good he is (well, was) at his job, and none of us do, so I can’t say I know how good or bad this move is. But if results are the only measure of things, then this does make sense. Two extremely bad starts to the season in a row, with no reason to hope for a major improvement any time soon. Firing him may be a gamble, but then, how much worse can it get… I feel sorry whenever someone loses a job though, even when we talk about pretty rich people like they are.

    2. The thing is, they were bad last season too. So this isn’t just the first two races but also a reaction to last season.

    3. Someone had to get the sack. Zak preferred it was Key.

  2. No more unlocking the car’s potential.
    Is a key appointment coming up for Williams?

    1. My thought too is that he will land at Williams.

  3. firing the wrong people; ZAK should leave; he’s responsible..

    1. The fish rots from the head as they say…

    2. Nah, this is the right guy to fire.

    3. Zak maybe the one responsible, but he doesn’t do the R&D, design, engineering, aerodynamics etc., he pays other people to do that, and if he thinks they’re not good enough, he’ll get someone else in.

    4. Agreed 100%

  4. Time for Mr Brown to take his talents elsewhere.

    1. Agreed 100%

    2. We all know Newey. We used to know other key designers, John Barnard, Gordon Murray, Ross Brawn…

      These days there is Fallows and Peter Prodromou – who credibcome from working with Newey.

      Who is considered the new Newey, the designer you need to take on Redbull?

  5. Zak Brown is a man of great imagination but very little concreteness. He’s done absolutely nothing at McLaren apart from his usual show in press conferences or showing his expensive car collection. McLaren who were the Red Bull of F1 till Red Bull took over from them cannot design a decent F1 car which is dead serious. The buck stops with him, it’s time for him to leave and let a serious manager run the team.

    1. Maybe Red Bull hiring Newey had long time effects after all

      1. In the same way McLaren hiring Newey had long term effects at Williams. They never recovered. And I think McLaren will never recover either. Mercedes leaving them and the failure with Honda were the final nails in the coffin.

    2. Agreed

  6. A tough call but I think it’s worth doing, even this early in the season. The team’s development simply isn’t good enough.

    The calls for Zak Brown to go aren’t entirely unfounded either, but I think McLaren should try this reorganisation first before trying to cut off the head.

  7. Zak Brown making the key decisions (pun not intended), like his call to become a Honda customer team in 2026 after his call to cease being the Honda Works team for 2019.
    But hey, he did spearhead the development of dynamic luminescent advertising banners.

    1. The decision to get rid of Honda was a massive, massive mistake. Honda was paying McLaren to use their engine. If McLaren had simply stood by Honda’s side, Honda would have repaid that for a long, long time. Honda is famously loyal, especially when they feel they have incurred a debt or underperformed on their side of the deal. And, as we later learned, the McLaren’s aero was garbage.

      Instead, they ditched and alienated Honda and went to paying for an engine that was never going to move them very far up the field, almost went bankrupt and had to sell shares and their entire history (all their famous cars, even trophies, etc.). So short sighted.

      1. Yes, very good point, Nick.

  8. Car is slow and unreliable, not a good combo. Additionally, they have very good drivers which are going to leave for a team with a better car, and almost every other team has a better car.

  9. I am shocked. But not. I suppose.

    I believe that James Key was a fantastic Technical Director for Sauber (when I became I fan of his) during the 2 years he was with them (April 2010 – February 2012) before being poached by Toro Rosso. Sauber finished 7th in the World Constructors’ Championship in 2011 and 6th in 2012.

    I think Key did a good for Toro Rosso too, helping them finish 7th in the WCC in all but the final year where he had a major influence on the car. However, Toro Rosso finished 9th in 2018, the final year Key was with them, a sign that something had gone wrong.

    Maybe McLaren will prove to be his bump in the road on an otherwise upwards trajectory. I believe (or perhaps I am just hopeful that) he is a great talent and will shine again at the next team he joins. Hopefully lessons have been learnt that needed to be learnt and he will come out stronger from this.

    This is all my personal perspective, and my understanding of car design and technology is weak, so I am interested to read everyone else’s comments on this thread.

    1. The 2018 Toro Rosso slump was mainly due to the team being a testing ground for the Honda F1 powertrain division. Both drivers that season had 5 DNF’s and a couple of very low other results due to reliability issues. Car performance was not brilliant either, but nothing out of the ordinary for a team like Toro Rosso.

      1. Interesting!

    2. Agreed. People are forgetting he showed great results at three midfield teams in succession. If anything, it’s people like Sam Michael who have been hyped yet produced very lack luster results IMO.

      1. His cars often started the season on par odr better than the Redbulls.

        1. And the rest was largely a combination of greater resources and obviously working with Newey inspired designs. Newey was less involved during the Ricciardo years. He got much more interested after, I think, recharging his batteries and pursing his sailing stuff. Then he came back with full force when they were getting a better engine and a shake up in the aero regs.

          1. To be specific, I meant falling behind the rest of the season was the result of…

  10. Zak will be next on the block if their fortunes don’t improve very quickly by next year.

  11. So to reach the top they follow the Ferrari way…
    Not sure if endless reorganization is the way to go.

  12. I’ve has business dealings with McLaren and based on that I would never do so again. So all I can say to this is: hahahahahahahahahaha! :)

  13. bring back Ron Dennis ;-)

    1. Poor, Ron. Many think/say oh he must be loving this, but it’s the complete opposite. McLaren will always be his baby/crowning achievement. He doesn’t want to see them fail. He wants to see them thrive.

  14. Poor Ron.*

  15. And there we have it, another step on the McLaren Merry-go-round of promises that will just take ‘one or 2 more years’ to come good.

    The wind tunnel coming online was getting awfully close, so they needed a new one to buy some time, now the have a restructure, so 2024 probably already a write off, and a new designer coming in who can’t start until next year, so that’s 2025 when we’ll see how good they are…..

    By which point they’ll be needing a new engine supply and will need 1-2 years to really integrate things

    But they’ll be absolutely MIGHTY in 2027.

    Oh wait, there’s a reg change in the middle of that. Which as we know will produce another disappointing result and need another restructure to fix.


    By which point the wind tunnel will be outdated and a new head of aero will come in.

    Just watch out for that 2029 car though, oooft.

    Of course there may be another restructure under a new team principle to get through, but 2033 is going to be a hell of a season for McLaren ;)

    1. well done

    2. Nicely done.
      I do feel this way about most of the midfield teams though, you can change a few of the references in your post and equally apply this to AT, Alpine, Alfa Romeo, Aston, (although it seems their lucky numbers came up so far this year).

      1. Absolutely zero luck went into Aston. They literally hired Newey’s protege (Dan Fallows) and many other rated engineers from RBR whose design debuted, surprise surprise, this season, poached a whole heap of engineers from Mercedes too including some of their most important engineers and got one of Alfa’s top guys to boot. Then pair all that talent with seasoned organizational managers and half billion dollar so new technical campus. Not a single team on the grid did anything that ambitious in recent years. The only really other big, tangible organizational change like that recently has been the Red Bull Powertrains program.

    3. McLaren and Renault/Alpine are the worst in this respect. Renault set a five-year plan to be competing for world titles. When they hit five-years, they renamed themselves Alpine and quietly reset the timeline to five-years again. I don’t think you’ll ever win as a team if you’re setting such pathetically unambitious goals unless they’re tied to very good reasons like we have huge facility upgrades that will take two years to complete or we’re going to focus our resources on an upcoming rule change with the goal of dominating out of the gates.

  16. McLaren has endured a disappointing start to its 2023 campaign. … At the Bahrain Grand Prix Key confirmed the team had suffered a particularly severe loss of performance as a result of the changes to the floor regulations introduced for 2023.

    Like it or not, F1 is a technology race too, not just a car race, and like it or not someone has to come last. It seems Zak holds James as being the one responsible for the poor performance at this seasons’ first two Grands prix, and he has lost faith in James being able to remedy the situation. This leaves the rest of the designers and engineers trying to make their car faster. Presumably Zak believes the absence of James is more beneficial than his presence. So what about the improvements James was working on before his dismissal? Presumably most of those that haven’t been manufactured will be discarded or forgotten about.
    I do hope things improve for McLaren, and I hope things go well for James too.

  17. McLaren have slowly worked their way down the starting grid ever since Mr. Brown arrived.
    Where’s Ron Dennis when you need him? LOL

  18. I wish McLaren swaps the place in the standings with Williams this year. Key has never put his foot wrong as TD in Torro Rosso. This development of things is only proving my point that this team is cursed since 2007.

    1. Cursed with impatience and thinking constant change is going to bring things right. Kind of like Ferrari who fired their team leader not for lack of making a good car, but because he wouldn’t publicly throw the team under the bus. They could have fired the race strategy team and kept him on board, but instead threw him out with the bathwater for Vasseur.

  19. Get the design right, go over budget consequences don’t seem very punitive!

  20. When you can’t overtake another car on the Saudi circuit with DRS you have BIG problems!

  21. Hope they get it together. They have outstanding drivers, they just need the car now.

    1. Yes, certainly one of the best driver pairings.

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