James Key left Toro Rosso in 2018, after serving for 6 years as the Red Bull junior team’s technical director. He joined McLaren as technical director in the aftermath of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, after a deal had already been agreed in 2018.
The reason for the gap was the so-called ‘gardening leave’. When asked what he was doing during the ‘gardening leave’ period, Key stated that he was in fact missing the sport during his leave, and was keen to start again.
“I just did all the domestic chores I hadn’t done for the past 20 odd years! But I think no because you’re anticipating, you know, you’re thinking ‘I’m missing stuff now because I’m not involved in the sport’. You know…what’s happening?”
“So you’re like, ‘I need to get back you know, I need to get on with things’.”
Key revealed that he was unable to ‘turn off’ his mind and stop thinking about Formula 1 during this period, saying: “And you’re kind of waiting to get on with it and get on with that challenge that you’ve got. So actually it wasn’t a relaxing period at all. But yes, it all kind of worked out in the end and I arrived.”
Key: “I let them negotiate”
Lando Norris is undoubtedly the key cog in the McLaren stable right now, and is one of the most coveted, and highest-rated drivers on the grid. Earlier, Norris had caught the eye of Red Bull – and there were talks between them.
Talking to Sport24 Auto, Dr. Helmut Marko had earlier confirmed that there were negotiations between Red Bull and Lando Norris, but obviously, the move did not materialize.
“We’ve had talks with him, but he’s tied to McLaren for the long term. We remain true to our path.”
James Key was apparently part of these negotiations, and Helmut Marko had said that they would let McLaren bring Key earlier if Red Bull were given Lando Norris in exchange. But appearing on Beyond the Grid, James Key made clear that he did not involve himself in these discussions and the ‘leave’ was in fact incredibly stressful for him.
“I think I stayed out of that. I let them negotiate. It’s the only time I’ve ever had gardening leave and it was probably the most stressful six months I’ve ever had!”
Of course, Lando Norris stayed at McLaren, where he has since stood on the podium 6 times, came perilously close to a victory on one particular occasion at Sochi 2021, and accumulated 345 points. It’s hard to imagine him at Red Bull, with him being contracted to McLaren till at least 2025. But one can only think of what might have been with him at Red Bull, even if no one can truly know.