Why McLaren always doubted second-row start in Spain would lead to points finish

2023 Spanish Grand Prix

Posted on

| Written by and

McLaren made it onto the second row of the grid for the first time in 13 races at last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix. But they were quick to downplay any prospect of converting that into a podium finish.

Indeed, their expectations for the race were so low that Lando Norris reckoned he would not even be able to convert his third place in qualifying into a points-scoring top-ten result come Sunday.

He turned out to be right, but the undoing of Norris’ race was not from a lack of pace as on the opening lap he made contact with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at the second corner and broke his front wing. After pitting at the end of the lap, Norris was 20th and last.

However Norris’ team mate Oscar Piastri also started inside the top 10 and finished outside it, lending weight to McLaren’s view that their drivers had qualified well above where the car was capable of finishing.

Race start, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Report: Norris denies taking risk at start but Hamilton says he needed to be “patient”
After what they described as one of their worst Fridays of the season in terms of pace, the team “sat down and were thinking it’s going to be tough to get out of Q1,” said Norris. But the potential for a strong qualifying performance was there.

“Even with the car being a bit of a struggle, I still felt confident in maximising it and getting the most out of the car every run, especially come qualifying,” he explained. He did just that while others including George Russell, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc faltered at key moments on Saturday.

Among the track conditions favouring McLaren that enabled their Saturday performance, one key factor according to team principal Andrea Stella was the calm conditions at the Circuit de Catalunya. “No wind seems to make our car quite calm and predictable, and therefore more exploitable in terms of grip.”

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

On Saturday, Stella reckoned some of the car’s characteristics which can work against them in a race had helped them in qualifying. “The new softs here deliver a lot of grip, at least when you have good warm-up like we seem to have. This is another condition in which balance problems associated with the long corners seem to come together much nicer, because of the extra grip you get from the tyres.”

Lando Norris, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2023
Third was Norris’ highest starting position since Monza last year
“This is also one reason why we are very prudent and realistic about the performance tomorrow,” he added ahead of the race, “because the benefit of having such a level of grip only happens on new softs for a single lap.”

Norris maximised those conditions to qualify third, before finishing a lapped 17th on Sunday. Piastri also reached Q3 but errors on his lap left him 10th. After a “pretty poor first lap” of his own, Piastri then “didn’t have the pace to really do anything” and finished 13th.

After the race, Stella explained why Norris was right to have been pessimistic about the team’s race performance.

“Yesterday we used the word realistic, I used it quite extensively because I thought, as I tried to describe yesterday, the conditions were very special, suiting our car exceptionally,” he told media including RaceFans, noting that several rivals in top teams underdelivered in several segments of qualifying.

“So I think it was just not really representative of the pecking order. Today, with the hotter conditions, without the benefit of the new tyres, we just ended up not having enough pace. But at the same time, also quite high tyre degradation, which as we said yesterday could be simply the counterpart of the fact that the car seems to be preparing new tyres so well.”

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Had Norris’ race not been ruined on lap one, the expectations were still very low. At best Stella saw a chance to be part of the fight for eighth place.

Norris predicted McLaren would be “lapped twice” in race
“I think he could have been in the group of cars with Zhou, Tsunoda, just behind the Aston Martin. I think we could have been in that group. Ahead or behind, I’m not sure.”

The performance of Pierre Gasly, who finished in 10th behind that group, demonstrated how the McLarens were unable to cling to the positions they had gained in qualifying come race day. He spent 26 of the race’s 66 laps race sat behind Piastri’s McLaren, unable to his show pace advantage until he made a pass with 18 laps to go. Gasly then pulled away by over eight seconds in 15 laps.

Stella reckoned the hotter conditions made it “very difficult to stay behind another car”, which benefited McLaren in that their cars were not closing in on the ones ahead of them, but were being chased from behind.

“In this case, as soon as we were overtaken, actually the Alpine disappeared,” said Stella, noting that McLaren’s pace was simply “just not quick enough” on the medium and hard compound tyres.

“I think the only thing that [this result] really adds is this almost opposite behaviour of what happens in qualifying compared to what happens in the race.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Neither McLaren driver scored points from their top 10 starts
“We don’t only have to look at the aerodynamic behaviour of the car, we know that we have to take a step forward from an aerodynamic point of view. But clearly we also need to get our tyres to work in a better range during the race. If anything, I think this [characteristic] was quite clear already.

“But this weekend I think we took the two extremes of being competitive in qualifying with no issues with warm-up, when some other people were talking about warm-up [issues], to our surprise. And today, a lack of pace when other people like Mercedes had very, very good degradation. So that’s the main takeaway.”

The clean air that Norris ran in for much of the race did help save his tyres, and in the instances he came across another driver he used the tow effect to aid his pace. In fact, only the two Red Bulls and Hamilton set faster race laps than Norris, and his pace was not a fluke. But it also counted for nothing.

Bringing the F1 news from the source

RaceFans strives to bring its readers news directly from the key players in Formula 1. We are able to do this thanks in part to the generous backing of our RaceFans Supporters.

By contributing £1 per month or £12 per year (or the equivalent in other currencies) you can help cover the costs involved in producing original journalism: Travelling, writing, creating, hosting, contacting and developing.

We have been proudly supported by our readers for over 10 years. If you enjoy our independent coverage, please consider becoming a RaceFans Supporter today. As a bonus, all our Supporters can also browse the site ad-free. Sign up or find out more via the links below:

2023 Spanish Grand Prix

Browse all 2023 Spanish Grand Prix articles

Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching Photography back in the UK. Currently based...
Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

4 comments on “Why McLaren always doubted second-row start in Spain would lead to points finish”

  1. This is a problem with DRS. Even if Norris’ McLaren was extremely uncompetitive, without DRS he might still be able to get some points if he really defended for all his worth (see Jean-Eric Vergne in Hyderabad Formula e this season, holding off a faster car in the closing laps for the win by defending into every corner), but in 2023, if he hadn’t damaged his front wing, he would just have been easily overtaken every lap down the pit straight with DRS until he was back in his natural position. Cars out of position on the grid, as we saw here and in Miami, is no longer something to be excited about because overtaking is just far too easy. Hopefully this will be addressed for next season because there could be no easier way to drastically improve Formula 1 than with the simple scrapping of DRS.

    1. Yes, this is actually a reason to have tracks like monaco: if you’re out of position with a faster car you don’t recover that easily there, see what perez did.

    2. Monaco is a bit on the other extreme, but there’s also hungary where it’s pretty difficult, maybe zandvoort.

    3. there could be no easier way to drastically improve Formula 1 than with the simple scrapping of DRS.

      Indeed. Not only are its “passes” super boring, it’s so easy to use that drivers have no incentive to even bother trying something at any other point on the track.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments are moderated. See the Comment Policy and FAQ for more.
If the person you're replying to is a registered user you can notify them of your reply using '@username'.