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‘I am an enabler’: Stella’s quiet style reaps rewards at McLaren

<span>Andrea Stella puts McLaren’s improvement down to teamwork.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images</span>
Andrea Stella puts McLaren’s improvement down to teamwork.Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

As sporting comebacks go, McLaren’s resurgence has been a trying affair and a long time coming. The wilderness years for one of F1’s most successful teams look to be over as they breathe new life into a season that looked to be done and dusted by Red Bull’s dominant Max Verstappen.

The scale of McLaren’s turnaround has been immense when considering the dark days of the mid 2010s, finishing ninth in the championship on two occasions. This was an almost unthinkable low from the team second only to Ferrari in F1 success, with 12 drivers’ and eight constructors’ titles.

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Almost a decade on, they are in the mix for wins again. Lando Norris took his debut F1 victory for McLaren in Miami in May and since then they have pushed Red Bull and Verstappen to the limit, with three second places. Over the past three races they have outscored every other team, taking 116 points over Red Bull’s 106 and 101 for Ferrari.

Their progress since the start of 2023 has been eyed enviously by rivals still looking to unlock the pace in their cars. More than 800 people at McLaren have been working long and hard toward this point and it has very much been a collective effort.

The ship has also enjoyed some exceptional steering in the form of team principal, Andrea Stella. In Barcelona before Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, Stella, a quietly spoken and thoughtful man was typically reluctant to take plaudits for what he views as the achievements of the team as a whole. It was instructive of his management style that, were it left to him, he would be barely noticeable. The key part of his role was very simple.

“It is to enable, genuinely, not as a slogan, teamwork,” he says. “Where teamwork has a clear direction where the team is going and everyone feels they want to contribute because they feel they have a role here. I want that to the point that I don’t even want to appear because that’s about the team. I am an enabler.”

The 53-year-old Italian was performance engineer for Michael Schumacher at Ferrari during the German’s dominance of F1, then for Kimi Raikkonen, including when the Finn won the title in 2007, and as a race engineer for Fernando Alonso in his stint at the Scuderia. He joined McLaren in a trackside role as head of operations in 2015 before becoming racing director in 2019. At the end of 2022 he was made team principal.

In just over a year and half he has overseen the most significant transformation at McLaren in the course of their return to the top, a feat acknowledged by Norris. “Andrea has easily the biggest and most important role in the whole thing,” he says. “Without him we wouldn’t be in the position we are now.”

Despite opening 2023 with a car that was well off the pace having failed to meet aerodynamic targets, a weakness Stella was honest about from the off, a series of upgrades at Austria and Singapore hit the target and catapulted McLaren to the sharp end of the grid. This season, the developments brought on at Miami delivered great advances in pace, such that they were nipping at Red Bull and at times bettering their rivals.

These strides were made in F1 terms with remarkable alacrity to the extent that it appeared almost baffling, McLaren apparently flaunting the “there is no magic bullet in F1” adage. Norris however, at the very heart of the team, was witness to the extraordinary part Stella was playing in loading the chamber with said ordinance, managing the personnel he had at his disposal. These were his tools and he wielded them with outstanding dexterity.

“He is able to read people very well, know how to get the most out of people,” he says. “95% of the people we have designing this car have designed the car for the last five or 10 years, they just haven’t been in the right position, the right atmosphere and with the right mentality of going about it. Andrea was able to see it and understand that and change things to unlock those abilities people have.”

This chimes almost perfectly with how Stella has interpreted his position and managed to make the best of it in such a short time. To a sport so reliant on technical excellence, on the minutiae of engineering, of tiny margins, Stella has brought vision and an ability to channel the very best from the people charged with implementing these goals.

“The main enabler has been unlocking people,” he says. “We have not made a significant injection of expertise from outside and the trajectory changed once we started, as we say internally, ‘unleashing the talent’.

“Leadership is a fundamental factor. Rarely the problem is the team, it starts from the leadership. We needed to make the leadership in the most effective condition.”

The team and Stella are reluctant to go into detail on quite what this entailed. They view it as a vital part of their recent success, equivalent then to a gamechanging piece of aerodynamics they would be equally loath to share with rivals. That it was transformational is inarguable.

There was, tellingly, no panic early in 2023 and no wanton blood-letting but rather the implementation of solutions as the team worked through their issues. Stella, unsurprisingly, has an engineer’s calm, considered approach, and chooses his words carefully.

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Yet the turnaround he wrought has happened in a remarkably short period of time. He recognises the work that had been done before he became team principal, of the investment, the infrastructure such as the new wind tunnel and composite facility, but he also cites the changing gradient of the development of the car occurring in the space of just a few days once the team had “unlocked the people element”.

“You need to help the people you are talking to figure out whether the elements they are putting on the table, are they the most important ones?” he says. “It becomes gradually, from a matter of vision and intuition, a matter of precision and competence.”

The Spanish Grand Prix will represent a real test of how far they have taken that precision and competence. If they are close to the Red Bulls in Barcelona, McLaren can consider themselves back in the game at the sharp end. Job done then, or as Stella might prefer, job enabled.