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Key away at McLaren: Is that why Williams waited with a new TD?

Key away at McLaren: Is that why Williams waited with a new TD?

24 March - 08:31 Last update: 09:04


James Key has left McLaren with immediate effect. The Briton who was once credited as Adrian Newey's successor now has to look for a new employer. However, with his CV and vacancies, that does not seem to be a problem at all.

Youngest technical director in F1

At 51, Key is certainly not among the old guard in Formula 1, but he already has a mountain of experience. After a stint as a data and race engineer at Jordan, he became the youngest technical director in Formula 1 in 2005 at 33 years old. Only Sam Michael, who became technical director at Williams in 2004, was the same age.

Since then, the top technical position is the only one Key has held, and successfully. His first period at Jordan, which later morphed into Midland, Spyker and Force India, was not particularly successful, but that is not surprising given those teams' budgets. Key joined Midland in mid-2005 and finished tenth with Midland in his first F1 season with zero points. The highlight of that season was the P9 and P10 For Tiago Monteiro and Christijan Albers in Hungary.

As Spyker, it scored one point in 2007, after which its first season as Force India ended with zero points again. With a bit more budget, however, Key proved it could also build a faster car, and the team finished with 13 points in 2009 and even 68 points in 2010 (although skewed by the new points system). Its final season saw it finish seventh among constructors.

Although it was Key's car, he did not celebrate the successes. Indeed, he moved to Sauber in 2010, for which he would design the 2011 and 2012 cars. In 2011, Key's first car scored as many points (44) as in 2010, followed by 126 in 2012. Again, Key did not experience that great success, as he switched to Toro Rosso in 2012.

'The new Adrian Newey'

At Toro Rosso, Key was labelled the new Newey, as he still managed to build a good car on a small budget. With Toro Rosso, he climbed from P9 in 2012 to P8 in 2013 and P7 in successively 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. 2015 was Key's most successful season at Toro Rosso, where Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen combined for 67 points.

However, Key wanted more, and with Newey still well and truly in place at Red Bull Racing, the way up within Red Bull seemed impossible. Therefore, Key joined McLaren in 2019 at the side of team boss Andreas Seidl. For McLaren, Key designed the successful 2020 car that achieved P3 in the constructors' championship, as well as three podiums. In 2021, McLaren dropped one place among constructors, but there was one win for Daniel Ricciardo in the Italian Grand Prix, the first victory in Key's name.

However, the disappointing results in 2022 and 2023 can be blamed on Key. The Briton missed the mark with the regulations changes and that seems to have killed him at McLaren, where he was not given the time to make up for his mistake. In 2022, McLaren slumped to fifth place, and in 2023, the team is now last in the standings after two races without having scored any points.

Williams next up?

Still, with his track record, Key probably does not need to fear for his place in the sport. If he wants to stay in the sport, there are plenty of vacancies. Even a move up to Ferrari is theoretically possible, as no technical director has been appointed there yet. However, a step up does not seem like the most logical choice for Key right now. Besides, Simone Resta (current technical director of Haas) also seems the best candidate for that role within Ferrari.

The most logical move for Key seems to be Williams. The British team has still not appointed a technical director since the departure of François-Xavier Demaison. Jost Capito was replaced by James Vowles, but there has been silence around a technical director for some time. The wait could indicate the link they have with Key.

Demaison left in late December, and according to reports from McLaren, it was already clear by then that there would be a reorganisation at McLaren. So chances are that the other British team already knew Key would leave and is waiting until it can recruit him. That moment now seems to have arrived.

Another, but less likely switch, is a return to AlphaTauri. It is clear that Helmut Marko and Franz Tost are dissatisfied with the performance of the current technical team led by technical director Jody Egginton, and they are likely to do all they can to bring Key in. Tost publicly stated that he no longer trusted his engineers, which does not send a good message to Egginton. Whether Key himself is hungry for a return is doubtful.

Key came into Formula 1 as the youngest technical director and was predicted to have a great career. He has certainly had a wonderful career in F1, but he has yet to make the step towards the top. A move back to Williams now seems logical, where Key will have to prove himself again alongside Vowles.

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