Technical director James Key is leaving McLaren after just four years. The specialist, who left Toro Rosso in 2019, appears to be the main victim of the Woking team’s poor start to the season.
McLaren finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship last season, highlighted by Lando Norris’ podium at Silverstone. This jubilee year – McLaren has been around for sixty years – just doesn’t want to go well. After two races, the former team champion is in last place in the championship. The best result was fifteenth place for Oscar Piastri in Saudi Arabia.
Norris criticized his employer on Sunday after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, who immediately took action. Key has been relieved of his duties and a completely new structure will be built in place of the Englishman in the coming period, including engineer David Sanchez, who will transfer from Ferrari on 1 January 2024, in the leadership role.
Sanchez becomes part of the three players who take the technical charge of the team. The Frenchman will be more busy car concept and performance. Neil Houdy will be responsible engineering and designwhile Peter Prodromou will be in charge of the aerodynamics department.
Before joining McLaren, Key worked for Jordan, Spyker, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso. For the 2021 Special Preview, we created a photo of the Key with ex-Spyker driver Christijan Albers and our expert Rob van den Heijkant, which you can read below.
‘He’s Adrian Newey’
Wherever James Key has worked in recent years, he has built powerful Formula 1 cars with modest capabilities. McLaren’s MCL35 is its latest successful model. A picture of ‘genius’, as Christijan Albers describes the British architect. “If I were a Ferrari, I would have brought it a long time ago.”
He does not appear in moderation, in any case the Grands Prix on the site. That was already in the middle of the last decade, Christijan Albers recalls. At that time, the former Dutch driver worked at Spyker and Force India with James Key, in his eyes one of the best designers of modern Formula 1. “James stayed at the factory. But the weekend he was on the track, you immediately realized how much skill he had,” says Albers. “The car got better and better heading into qualifying thanks to him.”
Key entered Formula 1 in 1998, with financial support from Lotus, just two years after completing his mechanical engineering studies at Nottingham University. Jordan hires him as a data engineer, two years later the Englishman is promoted to Takuma Sato’s race engineer. Seven years after entering Formula 1, he becomes the technical director of Midland F1, formerly Jordan. There, Albers soon discovers that a young British architect has what he needs, the key to success.
“I’m a fan of it,” admits the former Formula 1 driver, now an entrepreneur. “I like his character. He is calm, humble. And also a hard worker: he never looks at his watch to go home. The key is very good,” concludes Albers. “If you look at the budgets of the teams he worked on and what his choices were, you see that his cars have always performed well. That’s how it is now at McLaren and that’s no accident.
Like Albers, Rob van den Heijkant is passionate about the Key. As an aerodynamics expert at Jordan, Midland, Spyker and Force India, De Brabander was part of the Key team for many years. “When I came to Jordan, he had been there for several years. James had gone through all the departments, aerospace, and research and development (R&D). That was one of his greatest strengths: he had gained experience everywhere before becoming technical director. I worked with him, I was always satisfied with him,” says Van den Heijkant.
“When I started,” he continues, “we had a very small aero team. I believe there were ten of us. We had weekly meetings and James, as technical director, always sat down to discuss the direction we were going to take. I was still young, but he left a great impression. too much for me. I was impressed by him, because you realized that he knew something about everything. A big difference from other TDs, he thinks. “Ross Brawn was more of a people manager than a technical brain. And Newey is above all an aerodynamicist. As an architect, you usually need a strong technical background.
Another advantage of the Key is that Van den Heijkant thinks he is a pleasant person. Not a bully or a know-it-all, but a team leader with a social streak. “Very intelligent and friendly. If we had an idea, he could confirm very well whether it was a good idea or not,” says de Brabander. “I thought he was a very good colleague.”
“It’s exactly this amount that makes you a great team player,” adds Albers. “Important is a person who is very polite, accurate and gives 100 percent. He is the first to enter the factory and the last to leave. He takes time for everyone and does not work top-down, does not think hierarchically at all. In my days he was young and eager, he has grown a lot since then. And I think he can continue to grow. If I were Ferrari, I would bring him to the team after his stay at Toro Rosso.”
The important thing, Van den Heijkant claims, is not someone who is authoritarian or who just wants to push his decisions because of his position. “I didn’t see him insisting too much,” he says. A big difference in working and thinking compared to Mike Gascoyne, who replaced Key at Spyker. “That was a man punching the table, James let people have their way.” That is a point of criticism for other colleagues, Van den Heijkant understands. “I spoke to a friend of mine who works at Toro Rosso and he thinks it’s one of the smaller parts of Key that didn’t make decisions that caused several departments to argue.”
“Actually, the key is not that difficult,” admits Albers. “He’s not that type, he needs to be guided a bit. But what does it matter? It’s about how good the car is. I think he’s a genius, a genius. He can definitely continue to grow in his role as technical director.” Albers expects Key, who previously drove very competitive cars at Toro Rosso and Sauber, to be at McLaren for the time being. “If he doesn’t get a better offer from a top team like Ferrari, I think he will stay there.”
Still, Albers would like to see his old friend work for one of the three richest teams. “I’m very curious about him. What can he do with more budget and people? I think a lot.” Could Red Bull be a future option? “Adrian Newey is finished,” Albers believes. “At Red Bull they have to start building for the future. I see Key as the new Newey.” Van den Heijkant: “James has built great cars everywhere.”
According to him, the MCL35 is also a car with an attitude. “The Renault engine is still a pain point. But if McLaren starts using Mercedes engines next year, it will definitely give a boost,” Van den Heijkant expects. “James has everything for McLaren to make it a top 3 team: resources, infrastructure and a good track of the wind. Now working for the first time with a team that has become world champions, he is about to prove himself as one of the greats. He definitely has that in him. I hope he succeeds at McLaren, he is capable enough for that.”