McLaren counting the cost of strategic blunders to its championship challenge, driver errors, title battle, Lando Norris, Oscar Piastri, Red Bull Racing, British Grand Prix

Sportem
Sportem
18 Min Read

Lando Norris woke up on Sunday morning dreaming big.

He’d qualified third for his home British Grand Prix, but it had only been a mistake on his final lap that had left him unable to vie for pole. He knew his McLaren had the pace to fight for more.

But by the time the chequered flag fell later that day after 52 enthralling laps of Silverstone, Norris was still in third, crossing the line a devastated 7.5 seconds adrift of popular winner Lewis Hamilton and title leader Max Verstappen.

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The disappointment sat bitter on his tongue.

He’d led much of the race, sometimes with forceful speed that shaded the rest. Yet here he was collecting another minor podium trophy.

Norris had become used to them — too used to them. Despite McLaren’s ferocious development pace delivering him what’s often been at least the equal fastest car on the field, the chasm to first place seemed barely narrower, even after ticking off his maiden win in Miami.

“I hate it,” he said. “I hate ending in this position and forever having excuses for not doing a good enough job.

“Especially here in Silverstone, the one place I would love everything to go perfectly, it didn’t today.”

A late second pit stop left him vulnerable to Hamilton taking his lead, and a slow stop dropped him right into the Mercedes’s clutches. The wrong choice of tyre the cost him not one but two places, making him easy pickings for a rampant Verstappen in the final laps of the grand prix.

They’ll be tacked onto the growing list for 2024.

It’s fast becoming the story of McLaren’s season. Having basked in the euphoria of the car upgrades that have finally returned it to its rightful place at the front of the field after more than a decade in the wilderness, the pressure is growing to turn that pace into wins and a title challenge.

But it has just one victory and eight other podiums to show for the season. Verstappen and Red Bull Racing — despite carrying the weight of Sergio Pérez’s form slump — are being let off the hook.

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THE ALTERNATIVE 2024 CHAMPIONSHIP

Let’s start with the championship table after the Miami Grand Prix.

At that time Verstappen (136) led Norris (83) by 53 points.

Red Bull Racing (239) led McLaren (124) by 115 points.

The below alternative championship reconsiders the points if McLaren and its drivers had not made mistakes that gifted victories to rivals.

All other drivers remain where they would’ve otherwise finished, and fastest laps are still counted.

Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix

Piastri was McLaren’s fastest driver on his first visit to fearsome Imola, qualifying on the front row just 0.074 seconds to Verstappen, but rather than line up second on the grid, he was penalised to fifth for impeding during qualifying.

The team owned up to the error. The pit wall hadn’t warned the Australian that Kevin Magnussen was rapidly closing from behind at a point at the track where the mirrors are even less useful than usual.

Overtaking is difficult in Imola, but Verstappen was destined to struggle in the final stint. Norris, who inherited second, pushed hard to pass but finished runner-up by 0.725 seconds.

Could the faster Piastri have made the difference? Would he have got a better start than Norris to challenge into the first turn?

We’ll never know because of a team error, but for the sake of this experiment, we’re giving Piastri the victory.

Championship

Verstappen (154) leads Norris (98) by 56 points.

Red Bull Racing (261) leads McLaren (164) by 97 points.

Hamilton hangs on for fairytale victory | 03:04

Monaco Grand Prix

There’s no such thing as a perfect lap around Monaco, but at this year’s race the difference between Piastri’s best lap and his best sectors was pivotal.

Piastri was pole-getter Charles Leclerc’s closest challenger, qualifying second to the Monegasque by 0.154 seconds.

But if you were to have added up each driver’s best sectors, Piastri would have emerged on top with a margin of 0.07 seconds.

It proved to be even costlier a miss than usual, with a first-lap crash down the field killing strategy and costing him a chance to apply any real pressure, leaving Piastri locked into second.

It was a small mistake — especially in the context of Monaco — but it was undoubtedly a missed chance.

Championship

Verstappen (162) leads Norris (110) by 52 points.

Red Bull Racing (269) leads McLaren (201) by 68 points.

Canadian Grand Prix

This was the first big miss of McLaren’s season, made while Norris was absolutely flying early in the race. He’d taken the lead on lap 21 and was a massive 11.4 seconds ahead of the pack when the safety car was called on lap 25.

Norris was just entering the braking zone for the final chicane when the safety car was deployed. There was just enough time for him to change tack and enter pit lane.

But the team hadn’t been sufficiently organised for that decision to be automatic.

Often teams will alert drivers to their safety car pit windows being open, meaning if a safety car is called, the driver should head directly to pit lane.

Despite the risk of a safety car being high in the slippery conditions, McLaren didn’t have such a strategy in place, and there wasn’t enough time to have the discussion before Norris passed the pit entrance.

Verstappen, on the other hand, pitted immediately. Norris rejoined from his stop behind the Dutchman, who went on to win the grand prix.

His second stop arguably could have rescued the race had it come one lap earlier, but had the right calls been made initially, a salvage job wouldn’t have been required.

Championship

Verstappen (180) leads Norris (135) by 45 points.

Red Bull Racing (287) leads McLaren (236) by 51 points.

Danny Ric ‘puzzled’ after tough race | 02:17

Spanish Grand Prix

Norris qualified on pole and should have cruised to victory, but a slow start alongside the fast-firing Verstappen lost him the lead immediately, and a similarly quick George Russell demoted him to third, costing him valuable time trying to fight back.

But the team also played a critical role in putting victory out of reach.

At both of Norris’s pit stops he spent longer getting serviced than Verstappen.

Red Bull Racing was 0.5 seconds faster at the first stops and then 0.8 seconds quicker at the second ones, a difference of 1.3 seconds.

Norris spent the final stint chasing down Verstappen in an almost thrilling conclusion but fell 2.2 seconds short.

Had he had that extra 1.3 seconds in his pocket, he would’ve got into the Dutchman’s DRS with at least one lap to go.

The slow stops also tripped Norris up by having him push too hard in the opening laps of his final stint, costing him grip at the end.

Responsibility is shared by both team and driver here, but on pace and strategy this should’ve been a McLaren victory.

Championship

Verstappen (198) leads Norris (161) by 37 points.

Red Bull Racing (309) leads McLaren (268) by 41 points.

Austrian Grand Prix

Again Norris was the quicker driver in the final stint, even if a slow Red Bull Racing stop brought him into the battle sooner than expected.

For several laps he poked and prodded Verstappen’s defences until the Dutchman’s late move in the braking zone caused race-ending contact.

Verstappen was judged to be “predominantly” but not wholly to blame by the stewards, though the FIA admitted this week that he should’ve been shown the black and white flag for unsportsmanlike driving after his earlier moves in the braking zone, which might’ve avoided the incident.

But Norris was also setting himself up to fail.

He entered the battle with three strikes for track limits. The first time he outbraked himself into turn 3, he earnt himself a five-second penalty.

And as for the crash itself, he could’ve — though wasn’t obliged to by the rules — mounted the kerb as Verstappen moved towards him to make the fateful contact, which would’ve earnt him another chance, if not the lead on the run down to turn 4.

It’s harsh considering the crash wasn’t his fault, but a cooler head in battle — perhaps he was still thinking about his “amateur” defence against Verstappen in the sprint the day before — could have secured this victory.

Worse is that the super marginal track limits call against Piastri in qualifying meant he was out of position in the race. Had he qualified third, he would’ve inherited the victory after the crash.

Lewis tears up after Silverstone triumph | 02:15

Championship

Verstappen (224) leads Norris (193) by 31 points.

Red Bull Racing (338) leads McLaren (318) by 20 points.

British Grand Prix

McLaren had several chances to win in Silverstone but failed to take them.

Piastri was on the pace — arguably faster than Norris — before the first stops but was left out an extra lap when most of the field, including Norris, switched from slicks to intermediates. The decision immediately killed his race.

Norris led through the middle stint with ease, but he switched back to slicks a lap later than pursuers Hamilton and Verstappen. That alone didn’t end his victory bid, but it combined with a slow pit stop — Norris missed his marks, costing him roughly 2.5 seconds — and the wrong tyre choice to end his dream of a home win.

It was a true combined team-driver error. Again poor communication was at its heart. Norris wasn’t decisive enough about the timing of the stop based on his feel for the conditions, but then the team offered him too much choice on which compound he wanted.

Norris at first chose the softs because he’d been told Hamilton had taken them. Then he hesitated. But by then he was heading into pit lane.

His fresh mediums, the optimum compound that probably would’ve won him the race, were left in blankets unused.

This was a one-two gone begging for McLaren, and in our parallel universe it would’ve been enough to take control of the constructors standings.

Championship

Verstappen (239) leads Norris (218) by 21 points.

McLaren (361) leads Red Bull Racing (353) by 8 points.

To put that into context, consider the actual championship standings today.

Championship tables after 12 rounds

Max Verstappen (255) leads Norris (171) by 84 points.

Red Bull Racing (373) leads McLaren (295) by 78 points, with Ferrari still between them.

It’s interesting to note that our fictional championship doesn’t represent a massive swing against Verstappen or Red Bull Racing.

For example, Verstappen would’ve stood to lose just 16 points while Norris would’ve gained 47.

Red Bull Racing would’ve been down only 20 points while McLaren would’ve been up 66.

It’s not a zero-sum game. McLaren is leaving huge points on the table.

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WHAT’S GONE WRONG?

Team boss Andrea Stella owned up to the critical errors that put Norris out of contention late in Sunday’s race.

“We should have taken … the responsibility to say, ‘The medium is just the right tyre, we go for it’,” he said of the biggest mistake of Norris’s race, per the F1 website.

“I think in checking with Lando we kind of self-doubted, and this led us to following this direction which in hindsight wasn’t correct.”

“We have the possibility to make the call, we have more information, we have more people, so the responsibility of going on the soft rather than the medium, which would have been a better call, stands with the team.”

But he also called for calm in the fact of the team’s mounting missed chances.

McLaren, he reasoned, was overperforming. It didn’t expect to be fighting for a title this year, having surprised itself with the quality of its upgrades. It had previously thought 2025 was possible but that the rule changes in 2026 were its best bet.

It’s left the team lacking years of frontrunning experience. That deficit is being exposed by the title-winning Mercedes and Red Bull Racing teams.

“As part of the positives, I think the team are working very well, and when you race for the front positions, it just becomes much more visible when you still have some work to do,” he said.

Despite being one of the sport’s historic teams, the McLaren of today, after 12 years of turnover, is a relative novice.

“We are racing against the teams that have won championships and championships, and they are pretty stable in terms of the people that are there,” he said, per Autosport. “They are even familiar with this kind of racing at the top in changeable conditions and so on.

“From this point of view, we are I think more of an under-construction site.

“We take these near misses. The frustration will go very rapidly. But the opportunity will come soon, so we need to be ready.

“[Progress] is the responsibility for everyone. While Lando and Oscar don’t have responsibility in some of the calls that today we call missed opportunities, we all, drivers included, have the responsibility to keep building.

“Days in which we have a missed opportunity is the best opportunity to keep building.”

The British Grand Prix — and the five grands prix before it — could be the building blocks for something greater this season.

But on Sunday night defeat tasted bitter to Norris all the same.

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