One seventh place and a DNF was McLaren’s official result in the Belgian Grand Prix, with Lando Norris finishing 1m 13s behind Max Verstappen’s winning Red Bull and Oscar Piastri retiring after an incident seconds into the race.

    Yet despite the meagre outcome, McLaren had shown flashes of remarkable performance. There was a brief phase of the race where a rain shower – not heavy enough for intermediate tyres but enough to make the track surface extremely tricky – saw Norris become the fastest driver on track by an outrageous amount.

    This was in addition to Piastri’s second place in the Sprint the previous day after leading the early stages, having qualified within 0.011s of Verstappen’s pole.

    What was behind such an anomalous team performance? It was largely to do with the rear wing chosen by McLaren for this circuit, which demands a lot of high-speed downforce through the middle sector and very low drag for the long flat-out sections of Sectors 1 and 3.

    READ MORE: ‘A lack of experience’ – Sainz and Piastri at odds over first corner crash at Spa that forced both into retirement

    SPA, BELGIUM - JULY 29: Oscar Piastri of Australia driving the (81) McLaren MCL60 Mercedes on track
    The McLaren had serious amounts of pace in the wet conditions

    McLaren were offset to every other car in having a much bigger wing, making it extremely slow on the straights but almost Red Bull-fast through the fast middle sector, which actually makes up almost half the total lap. This advantage was magnified when the track was wet.

    Both qualifying sessions – Friday's for the Sunday race and the Saturday Sprint Shootout – were held in damp conditions. Dry enough in both cases to be on slicks by the final session but still several seconds off a fully dry time.

    READ MORE: Verstappen opens up on radio exchange with engineer in Belgian GP after dominant recovery drive to 8th straight win

    In Friday qualifying, the McLarens of Piastri and Norris were fifth and seventh respectively, the latter compromised by floor damage from an off-track moment in the wet Q1. They were 12km/h slower than the Red Bull at the end of the Kemmel Straight. Between the speed trap at the top of the hill exiting Raidillon and the end of that straight, Piastri was losing over 0.5s to Verstappen. On the run from Paul Frere to the Bus Stop chicane there was another 0.25s lost.

    SPA, BELGIUM - JULY 30: Zhou Guanyu of China driving the (24) Alfa Romeo F1 C43 Ferrari leads Lando
    In the dry, Norris struggled to keep up at the start of the Grand Prix

    But in the middle sector, Piastri was the only driver anywhere near Verstappen, and around 0.6s faster than the Ferraris, Mercedes or Sergio Perez’s Red Bull. In the wetter conditions of Saturday’s Sprint Shootout, the pattern was even clearer: this time Piastri was a resounding 0.8s faster through the middle sector than Verstappen and lost out on P1 to him by a tiny margin.

    Had the Sunday race been wet, we could very well have seen a sensational McLaren performance. But in the dry, that straight line deficit made the car unraceable. Norris ran in an early seventh place but car after car was able to simply sail by him on the straight, cars which would then hold him up badly through the middle sector. By the fifth lap he was down to 10th and completely defenceless. He requested to be pitted to get into clear air, and so at least be able to use the car’s Sector 2 performance to make race time up on his rivals.

    READ MORE: ‘It’s been a positive weekend’ – Leclerc pleased with podium in Belgium but says Ferrari still have 'a lot of work to do'

    Pitting onto the hard tyre further compromised his race as that compound was just too slow, and he was back in after 12 laps for a switch to the softs. Two such early pit stops put him a solid last. It looked like a disastrous day for him, but the rain shower rescued it.

    The rain arrived on Lap 20 and lasted for three laps. During this time Norris was the fastest car on track by seconds. Between Lap 20 and 23 he reduced his deficit to the race-leading Verstappen (on mediums) by 8s. This vaulted him several positions and was the foundation for that seventh-place recovery.

    Norris hails McLaren strategy for vaulting him up into the points from ‘not far off last place’
    Norris hails McLaren strategy for vaulting him up into the points from ‘not far off last place’

    But McLaren’s big wing wasn’t a calculated choice. It was borne of necessity. Such had been the production demands of the recent bodywork upgrades (introduced in Austria and Silverstone) that no time had been devoted to creating a specific low-downforce Spa wing. There was a smaller wing which could have been used but it was not aerodynamically efficient, and would have lost more time in the middle sector than it gained on the straights.

    “We have done quite a lot of work redesigning the car from the start of the season,” said Team Principal Andrea Stella. “One thing that we haven’t attacked yet is actually the car at low drag level. So, there wasn’t much efficiency to gain by going on a small rear wing and we decided to stay at the point in which the car is most efficient.

    “There’s not only a tactical choice based on you wanting to be quick in the corners and you are set to be slow in the straights; it’s more what the car has to offer as a function of the rear wing level.”

    HIGHLIGHTS: Watch the action from an exciting Belgian Grand Prix as Verstappen makes it eight in a row

    After Sunday’s race Stella reflected that improving the efficiency of the car in low-drag configuration would be very much a priority in preparation for Monza in September.

    Although the wing offset to the others made Norris’s a difficult race on Sunday, it also helped create some sparkling moments for the team.

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