McLaren has a strong reputation for attention to detail, cleanliness, and immaculate presentation. So when the team announced its intentions to move into the messy world of off-road racing, this writer’s eyes widened.
Sure enough, there were a few chuckles from some of the team’s ex-Formula 1 personnel when I questioned how the McLaren of old would have dealt with the sands of the Saudi Arabian desert at the 2022 Desert X-Prix. But it was the other elements of McLaren’s pedigree that shone through over the weekend – although it did remain well turned out, too.
“I think we’re all learning, but the things that we can control, they have covered in the most extreme way I’ve experienced, right down to the kit that we wear and the Papaya-colored cutlery that we use,” Tanner Foust, who has previously worked in factory-backed teams aligned to several different big-name manufacturers, told DirtFish of his new working environment.
“No detail is too small and it gives you a lot of confidence in the car and in the setup and in the reliability of those things that you can control.
“Their technical abilities of course are off the charts, the professionalism is off the charts, so that does put a lot of pressure on the drivers to not let all these people down,” he added.
“I think it’s interesting for both of us, not just Emma [Gilmour] and I but also McLaren and the drivers, because obviously [in] off-roading, the subjective input’s pretty important as in other racing. But with this type of motorsport, there’s only so much you can control.
“The percentage of what is out of your control is much bigger. McLaren didn’t develop this car, it’s a one-off car made by another manufacturer, by Spark, and you’re handed it. So sometimes there’s technical things that are not the team’s fault.
“[There’s] a lot of the things that you have to simply take them as they come, out of your control things, I don’t think a lot of the McLaren engineers are used to.”
Best known for its F1 team, McLaren’s Extreme E squad is made up of a number of people from its primary racing operation, but it also brought in personnel with experience of other facets of motorsport, most notably the sister pairing of Leena and Teena Gade who between them have worked in top-level sportscar racing in Europe and the US, and been involved in IndyCar, touring cars, rallying and even autonomous car racing in addition to F1.
“Before we came here we knew that we had to kind of establish what the series was like, what to expect from a race weekend,” Leena Gade, a three-time Le Mans winning race engineer with Audi, told DirtFish.
“Like anything you kind of have to come in with an open mind because what I know from the World Endurance Championship, from racing in IMSA, from a little bit of IndyCar and all the other stuff I’ve ever done, and the same with the guys that have come from F1, rallying and things like that, it’s a completely different series, right? So you have to take the good with the bad, the ugly, the whole lot.”
The Woking team’s off-road debut in the first XE event of 2022 was mixed.
A steady start was hampered by a battery issue in qualifying that meant it had to get to the main event via the ‘crazy race’. It would win that, with Foust charging through the field to destroy a 12.45-second deficit and beat reigning champion Molly Taylor to the last spot in the final.
“When we got going for free practice, we were OK,” Leena Gade said. “I think our biggest time losses were in sector two and sector three. So we were, let’s say, on the back foot in as much as we’d never really done any high-speed testing – ours has been a lot more low-speed to medium-speed stuff. And that meant that we had to get our thinking caps on.
“We didn’t really solve it for qualifying one, and definitely didn’t really solve it for qualifying two, but then we went into the crazy race and I think we would’ve been higher up the order and potentially not in the crazy race if we hadn’t had the battery issues that we did at the stop. So that was a bit of a letdown at that point [but] then we did the crazy race and… I was happy that we had a good result for the team.”
That would be the high point of the weekend, however, with the team quickly learning how fast luck can change when it rolled out of the final early on; an unfortunate instance where Foust made contact with Rosberg X Racing’s Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky while navigating through dust. It was an incident that Gade described as “racing, that is just basically what happened”.
“We cannot change that kind of thing that happened to Tanner because it’s just… sadly… I’ve always believed that you make your own luck, but I have a feeling that this particular series, it’s not really about that, it’s about making sure everybody else has their luck but their luck stays out of your way so that you have a good race,” she said.
Describing his own experience of the Desert X-Prix, Foust admitted that the driving side of the series was a bit more eye-opening than he expected.
“It’s a funny mix of a lot of different sports I’ve done in the past: drifting – it’s kind of like that in that the closer you come to crashing, better you do, without crashing obviously,” he said, eerily ahead of his weekend-ending roll. “And that’s how it is in qualifying in drifting. Rallycross – it’s basically just a sprint.
“And then off-road racing and Baja racing, which I’ve done a bit of – that’s the terrain, that’s reading the terrain, trying to see what’s going to damage the vehicle or flip you over and what won’t.
“So it’s absolutely insane! It’s like having a complete sprint rallycross [race] over the gnarliest terrain ever with a vehicle that really only has so much suspension travel. And so you’re really exceeding what the vehicle’s capable of in suspension travel, and that’s causing a lot of bucking and unpredictability, so it’s scary.”
Speaking from a team perspective, Gade said that McLaren never went to Saudi Arabia with performance goals in mind, but instead it wanted to nail procedural elements and set itself a solid baseline from which to build on.
“In terms of coming here and the performance that we wanted, we never once spoke about what we wanted to do,” she insisted. “I think in the back of everybody’s mind, we needed to get to the final. I think that was the unwritten rule. But we did come with procedures that we wanted to make sure we got right.
“We got some right, we got some that we need to improve on, we got some that we changed as we went along.
“There’s a huge list of takeaways that we have from this of what to do differently is probably the same for every race team when they go to a race, now implementing it and getting better.
“The strength that we have as a group is every single one of us that’s been working in this scenario here for McLaren, we’ve dealt with really high pressured stuff, the F1 guys obviously, my sister with the stuff she’s done in F1, with rallying, even sportscars, it’s been a seriously high level, so what I guess I’m saying is, we know what we’ve got to do, we’ll make it happen, so that the next event we come to, it’ll be even slicker.
“It’s been thoroughly enjoyable, I have to say. Just the track walk alone, being able to see the spectacular scenery, and then the lines, just learning from two drivers who do off-road stuff incredibly well, and my sister and one of the mechanics, because that’s the core group of off-road people we have here. The rest of us have come from this really kind of regimented [way]. There’s a bit of freedom in this that you don’t get elsewhere and I think that’s been refreshing.”