Are McLaren becoming F1's 'what might have been' team?


As Lewis Hamilton basked in the adulation of a record ninth British Grand Prix victory at Silverstone, McLaren’s Lando Norris only had one thing running through his mind: It should have been him.

It’s not the first time recently Norris or McLaren has left a race weekend with that feeling. In fact, since his breakthrough victory at the Miami Grand Prix at the start of May, McLaren has had a legitimate shot at victory at every race bar perhaps the Monaco Grand Prix won by Ferrari. Norris and his team have failed to convert any of those chances into a win.

Silverstone was yet another frustrating example. As Hamilton, a British flag draped over his shoulder and tears still welling up in his eyes, did his first interview to the ecstatic home crowd, TV cameras panned to Norris slouched over the box in parc ferme with the number three written on it. His list of ‘what might have been’ moments is getting longer by the race.

“I’ve heard that a lot lately,” Norris said. “I hate saying it again, but so many things were going well and we threw it away at the final stop.”

The call in question was the crossover from the intermediate wet-weather tyre to the dry tyres, one which proved to be the decisive moment for Hamilton’s win.

With Norris leading on lap 39, Hamilton and Max Verstappen both pitted from the positions directly behind. Hamilton took on the soft, Verstappen the hard. On Norris’ extra lap around the 5.891 km (3.661 mile) Silverstone circuit, a conversation with his McLaren pit wall suggested indecision on both sides of the conversation.

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McLaren offered Norris a simple choice: swap to the softs to cover Hamilton, or swap to the mediums to cover Verstappen, who had moved onto the hard tyre.

“Hamilton…. I think Hamilton,” Norris said in reply. “Or do you think medium? I don’t mind.”

McLaren opted for the softs to cover Hamilton. Norris then overshot his pit box slightly and he spent 4.5 seconds stationary – time which feels like a lifetime by modern F1 pit-stop standards. By the time Norris was exiting the pit-lane with new dry tyres on his car, he was watching Hamilton’s grey and black Mercedes swing past him for a lead he would never relinquish.

Norris felt McLaren had made a mistake on two counts: the timing of the stop and the tyre it decided to take.

“One lap too late, but also I think that even had I boxed on the perfect lap, our decision to go on the softs was the wrong one,” he said.

“I think Lewis would still have won, no matter what, but two calls from our side cost us everything today. So for me, it’s pretty disappointing, especially here at Silverstone. I’m just fed up with making excuses … But there are still a lot of positives, so we need to keep working as a team even if we know we’ve thrown away something that should have been ours.”

It was a clear unforced error by McLaren. Mercedes had put Hamilton on the soft tyre because it did not have an extra set of mediums for his car, but McLaren had a new set of mediums for Norris.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff later suggested McLaren had made a big blunder in their tyre selection.

“In hindsight, probably the right order of priority would be medium, hard, soft,” Wolff said about the tyre choice at the end of the race. “That’s what would have been the quickest. But we saved it at the end. I think our tyre deg was good compared to the McLarens and that secured the victory.”

Norris’ focus soon switched from Hamilton’s Mercedes to Verstappen’s Red Bull behind. The reigning world champion, who was flying on the hards, would breeze past eight laps after Norris’ stop. Norris would finish ahead of teammate Oscar Piastri, who would also have been in the mix at the end had McLaren not got it wrong at the first pit-stop of the grand prix.

As has often been the case at Silverstone the unpredictable British weather made for a spellbinding contest. The race started with cars on dry tyres but grey clouds hung ominously over the circuit. Early showers caught a few drivers out — Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc both pitted way too early for the intermediate dry tyre but by lap 27 the rain was heavy. Max Verstappen made a late call to dart into the pits for intermediates and, as he did so, the McLaren’s of Norris and Piastri were leading the Mercedes cars of Hamilton and George Russell.

Then came another key moment in McLaren’s race. As the lead quartet neared the pit entry a lap later, Norris pitted but Piastri stayed out. Behind them Mercedes did what McLaren should have done — called on both its drivers to make a double stack. Piastri later admitted he immediately knew his chances of winning the race had been dealt a significant blow.

Asked when he knew it was the wrong call to stay out for another lap, he said: “As soon as I went past pit entry! The last couple of corners were very, very tough. I could see on my dash that Lando was five seconds behind me when I pitted so I knew I was in a lot of trouble then. I knew it was the wrong call basically, instantly.”

It meant Piastri had to crawl around a circuit which was now getting wetter by the second.

“There was only really half the track that was really difficult until the lap I stayed out. Then the whole track became difficult,” he said.

Piastri felt it was the only call McLaren got wrong in his race but, as with teammate Norris, it was one which proved costly. Even with the slow extra lap around the circuit, Piastri finished the race 12 seconds down on Hamilton.

“To be honest, that decision in that race is probably the hardest call you’re ever going to make in motor racing. You’ve got two cars one-two, separated by half a second with the rain coming down. I don’t think it gets any harder than that. I think there are some things we need to review.”

He added: “Every other decision we absolutely nailed in that race.”

Piastri is right that it was a hard call, but it is one Mercedes executed perfectly. It was a bold and decisive call made by a race team only thinking about how to win a race, rather than how best to hedge its best and keep both alternatives open. His final quote might well sum up where McLaren has found itself relative to its rivals over the past two months — they’ve been getting almost everything right. As was the case at Silverstone, victories have eluded them elsewhere on the smallest of margins.

Two weeks on from his Miami win, Norris crossed the line 0.2 seconds behind Verstappen at Imola. While a safety car had propelled him to victory in Florida, McLaren’s slow reaction to one in Canada likely prevented him from a second win in North America a few races later. Norris’ sluggish getaway in Spain, which left him behind Verstappen and Russell for a crucial spell, cost him that one, while his late tangle with the reigning world champion at the Austrian Grand Prix denied him a thrilling late win at the Red Bull Ring.

It was telling on Sunday evening to hear both Toto Wolff and Christian Horner talk about their calls around the pit-stops, in contrast to what the McLaren drivers said.

Wolff said: “I think the communication with the driver today was very good and we kept the channel open at all times. Among ourselves we kept discussing the pros and cons, we were monitoring the gaps and the strategy said we believe the crossover is now. And that was spot on, that was the perfect time to pit.”

Verstappen and Red Bull finished second and Horner praised the whole team operation for the result.

Asked how much Verstappen deserved credit for making calls over the radio, Horner replied: “Yeah a large amount, but that’s in conjunction with the pit wall.

“You’ve got to have a relationship — the driver-engineer relationship, working with the strategists, the spotters, everything has to come together and Max was giving us great information and we picked the right tire at the end of the race and we got the calls at the right time and he delivered on it. Everything has to be working in harmony.”

That harmony in decision-making does not appear to exist at McLaren at the moment. McLaren CEO Zak Brown and team boss Andrea Stella have turned the team into a legitimate victory contender week to week, but there is something still missing. In a sport where every race is being won and lost on tiny moments and decisions the British team cannot afford to keep being the squad which is delivering slightly less than required to win. Things might look so different right now if McLaren and its drivers were operating like Mercedes and Red Bull did at Silverstone.

That run of missed opportunities could sting for a bigger reason too. Miami and Norris’ performances at the next couple of races confirmed that McLaren had slashed the gap to Red Bull and ended the days of Verstappen strolling to wins out in front. Ferrari have faltered since Charles Leclerc won at Monaco but we’ve seen Mercedes now on the rise.

While Russell was a lucky beneficiary from Norris’ collision with Verstappen in Austria a week earlier, Mercedes’ pace at Silverstone was good enough for a front row lockout and put them right there in the fight for when McLaren dropped the ball.

Asked on Sunday evening if Hamilton’s win felt like confirmation Mercedes has returned into the competitive mix for wins, Wolff said yes.

“It does feel that way. Because last weekend we were far off, when you look at the gap we had before they crashed. It was nearly two-tenths a lap, a bit more. And that’s the closest we’ve been for a long time on a track we didn’t like so much in the past. That kind of gave us hints that it could be getting much better.

“Honestly we didn’t think it would be Silverstone because more stuff we were putting on the car we were more expecting Budapest or Spa. But I agree, we justified what we do is right at the moment.”

The warning there for McLaren is obvious. The fight out front is getting more competitive and Mercedes are just as capable of punishing their mistakes as Verstappen is.

A wider look at things as well will have McLaren kicking themselves. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Norris could, or should, have won five of the six races since Miami. It’s tantalising to think what the championship would look like if he had done so. Of those races listed above where Norris had a shot, Verstappen won three of them – Imola, Canada and Spain.

The Dutchman left Silverstone having extended his championship lead over Norris to a huge 84 points at the mid-way point in the season but things could have been much closer had Norris and McLaren converted even half of those opportunities. Verstappen’s teammate Perez’s continued struggles have at least made the constructors’ more interesting: Red Bull leads Ferrari by 71 points and McLaren by 78 points in the constructors’ championship. Closing that gap appears far more possible but Mercedes entering the mix now also means there could be fewer points available to take away from Red Bull.

Whichever way you look at it, the run of races we’ve had since McLaren won in Miami stand out as huge opportunities squandered. We don’t know how the championship will pan out from this point but McLaren might well get to the end of the season and reflect on this run of races with the same kind of frustration Norris had on Sunday evening.



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