How McLaren threw away its shot at winning F1's British GP: 'We got it wrong'

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Hindsight is 20/20.

As cliché as the saying is, McLaren’s British Grand Prix embodied it. Multiple ‘what if’ questions hung in the air after the Woking-based team made errors with Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri’s races, messing up its chances of winning its home race.

Disappointment and frustration were evident on Norris’ face from the moment he took off his helmet. He rested his hands on the platform that held his bright helmet behind the P3 marker in parc ferme, staring at the ground. He would flash a smile every so often, like when he hugged Lewis Hamilton after the seven-time world champion won his first Formula One race in 945 days. But it wasn’t a clear-cut Mercedes runaway victory. Either McLaren driver nearly had it.

At one point, McLaren held the first two spots of the race, but losing the lead came down to how it handled pit stops from both the team and driver’s sides. Because the British Grand Prix is the latest race McLaren should’ve won.

“I’m fed up of saying, ‘I should have done better’ and, ‘Could’ve done this, that,’” Norris told Sky Sports. “I don’t want it to take time – we should be winning now, I should be making better decisions than the ones I’m making. I’m disappointed. It’s a win in Formula One, and I’m not going to settle for something less when we should’ve achieved it.”

To double stack or not?

Norris and Piastri led the race, the Briton at the front of the pack.

McLaren looked like the quickest team throughout the weekend and the race. When both drivers easily overtook Verstappen, it seemed like they’d control the British GP, eventually advancing to a 1-2 lead. But rain fell, and teams began weighing when to swap for intermediate tires. The timing of this call is often a discussion held by both the team and driver as the car zooms around the circuit.

At this point in the race, Mercedes and McLaren’s strategies diverged. The Silver Arrows opted to double-stack Hamilton and George Russell, while Piastri stayed out an extra lap and Norris pitted – a costly decision for the Australian driver.

“To be honest, that decision in the race is probably the hardest call you’re ever going to have in motor racing. You’ve got two cars, one-two, separated by half a second with rain coming down,” Piastri said. “I don’t think it gets any harder than that, so I think clearly (there are) some things we need to review. I think double-stacking would have been the better call, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing, so I think we just need to see if we had any information that told us that was going to be a better choice.”

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McLaren held a firm grip on the lead for much of the race. (SIPA USA)

Piastri acknowledged it was a “joint” discussion and that the double stack option was available. McLaren team principal Andrea Stella said, “Not only should he have pushed, but we should have pushed harder for the double stack because by delaying Oscar’s stop by one lap, we lost much more time than the time we would have lost in a double stack pit stop. So, in hindsight, that was the right thing to do: stop both cars at the same time, and we take the learning from this experience and we will do better next time.”

The Australian driver said he realized staying out an extra lap “was the wrong call basically instantly.” Piastri saw on his dashboard that his teammate was closing on him, around five seconds behind, when he pitted. Multiple factors go into deciding whether to double-stack drivers when executing pit stops. Teams lose time when pitting drivers back-to-back, but the other question to consider is how much time is lost while on track from not pitting at the right time.

“I think we were a little greedy that we didn’t want to accept that we would have lost time with the double stack, but effectively, sometimes you just have to be patient and accept that you’re gonna lose time but just do the right thing rather than hoping that one lap more is not gonna cost that much,” Stella said. “Especially when the rain was pretty steady, so it’s not like he’s gonna face easier conditions staying out one more lap.”

Stella added, “I think Oscar would have been in a really strong position today, like at least as strong as Lando in terms of opportunities to win the race.”

Instead, Piastri ended the day in fourth place, 12.4 seconds off Hamilton. McLaren had faced one of the most high-pressure moments during a race, and he felt “we got it wrong.”

The move to slicks

As the last rain spell began lightening up, teams faced another tricky call: when to switch to slicks.

Verstappen was among the first leaders to dive into the pits and switched to the hard tire. He didn’t seem in the mix until the late stages, when he tried to catch Hamilton and Norris, succeeding on the latter. Hamilton dove into the pits on the same lap as Verstappen (Lap 38) but opted for the soft tires. Norris swapped his tires a lap later and chose the same compound as the Mercedes driver.

To make matters worse, during that pit stop, he missed his marks, forcing the McLaren pit crew to shuffle up and out of position, making the pit stop longer than normal.

“​​We threw it away in the final stop,” Norris said after the race. “So one lap, but also, I don’t think it was a lap. I think even if I boxed on the perfect lap, our decision to go on to the softs was the wrong one. I think Lewis still would have won no matter what.”

The choice to go with the soft tire wasn’t necessarily wrong, but McLaren’s car hasn’t done as well with that compound due to car balance, Norris told Sky Sports. He added, “We have always been bad on that tire, and Mercedes (have) always been very good, so we almost had no chance of beating them. I expected to come out ahead of the Mercedes, (but) I didn’t. Even if I had, we wouldn’t have won the race because we were too slow.”

Stella said if he had to make the call again, Norris would’ve pitted the same lap as Hamilton and Verstappen, but that move would leave questions about what tire would be best to use. “Pitting one lap later gives you the possibility to observe what your competitors do, and I think the going on soft wasn’t the right call for us,” Stella said. “In fact, we degraded the tires too much to be able to retain the position on Verstappen, and in fairness, Lewis did a really good job of making the soft tires last the entire stint.”

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The late-race pit stops undid McLaren’s race. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The medium tires take a bit longer to come to temperature compared to soft tires, and it’s a balance of how much time you lose at the start of the tire stint compared to how fast the compound would be at the end of the stint – in this case, the end of the race. Norris felt the team should put the soft compound on his car, and Stella admitted after the race that he thought McLaren did get influenced by the tire Hamilton chose.

Norris still finished on the podium, but because of tire degradation, he lost a spot to Verstappen. Naturally, given what we now know, it’s fair to ask whether Norris would have won if he had gone with the medium tire instead of the soft.

“That’s not guaranteed,” Stella said when asked the question. “It’s not guaranteed because Lewis managed to keep the tires in good shape, so you know you have to overtake, I think we could have got in the gearbox of Lewis but overtaking is a slightly different matter.”

Another near miss

The word that arose a few times in interviews with McLaren was “hindsight.”

Some calls would’ve been made differently, such as Piastri and Norris’ pit stops. While both competitors gave input on what they felt was best for their respective stops,  the final decision rests with the team.

When it came to Norris’ tires, Stella made it clear that it wasn’t because the Briton said they should go with the soft tires. The team principal said, “We have the possibility to make the call, we have more information, we have more people, so the responsibility of going on soft rather than on medium, which would have been a better call, stands with the team. It’s 100 percent my responsibility and the people.” And it is the same with Piastri. Stella admitted they should have told the Australian driver they’d double-stack the cars.

Stella said relying on the drivers’ input for those on-the-fly decisions would be “asking too much” of them. “That’s why there’s a pit wall that should help the drivers, and in this case, we have to say that we missed some opportunities,” he said.

Motorsports is a balance of risk versus reward, and sometimes it becomes a game of “what if.” But the margins are closer this season, and McLaren can win races and someday lead championships.

Mistakes matter more.

“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,” Stella said. “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 more of an under-construction side.”

Top photo: Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images

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