Feature F1 Unlocked
THE STRATEGIST: What could Norris have achieved with a better grid slot in Mexico?
McLaren’s recent run of strong pace throughout both qualifying and on race day continued in Mexico, but for the first time in five Grand Prix weekends they came away without a podium finish. So what went wrong – and what was possible, especially had Lando Norris not had such an uncharacteristically poor qualifying session? Bernie Collins, former Head of Race Strategy at Aston Martin, dives into the data to find out...
The weekend started to unravel for McLaren in qualifying. Norris initially in Q1 ran on the medium tyres but was called to abort during his flying lap. He was told just before the stadium section at the end of the lap to box, for what was later reported to be a fuel issue.
At that point Norris was around one tenth of a second faster than team mate Oscar Piastri. After coming back out on to the track, Norris needed a final run on the quicker soft tyres to progress.
Given the track improvement and compound delta between the medium and the soft, even if Norris’ first lap on medium had been completed, it would not have changed his qualifying position.
Both Norris and Piastri ran early compared to others for their soft run. Piastri managed a 1:18.241 and then stopped in the garage.
Norris, however, made a mistake through the high-speed section Turn 7 to Turn 9 costing 0.4 seconds – though even with that error the lap would still have been good enough to progress to Q2.
A final mistake however in Turn 12, due to a snap from tail wind, forced the lap to be aborted. With enough time and fuel for a cool down and then another push lap, Norris attempted one final lap, but was caught out by the yellow flags from Fernando Alonso in Turn 3, forcing him to slow.
The combination of the mistake and yellow flag resulted in Norris finding himself P19 at the end of Q1, and facing a difficult race ahead. Piastri went on to qualify P7 giving an indication of what could have been possible for Norris.
With Lance Stroll electing to start from the pit lane and Yuki Tsunoda having a penalty for replacing power unit components, Norris was promoted to P17 on the grid.
At race start Norris was the only driver on the soft tyre and ran the first stint in P15 behind Tsunoda. The McLaren man then boxed early to switch from the soft on a two-stop strategy.
When the Safety Car was deployed to recover Kevin Magnussen’s car and repair the barrier after his crash, the team initially appeared to believe it was too early for Norris to take on the medium tyre. However, he was called to box to take the Safety Car pit loss saving in the hope the medium would reach the end of the race.
A poor restart after the red flag then dropped Norris from P10 to P14, before a final stint that saw him overtake eight cars to finish P5. The fact that Norris had the highest number of overtakes of any driver in the race (16) is a clear indication of the strong pace of his McLaren. So what could have been possible for him on the day?
After the red flag, Norris – lining up in P10 – complained that a standing restart was unfair for those on the dirty side of the grid due to the tyre marbles already accumulated from the earlier race laps.
His fears proved well-founded and he immediately dropped positions to P14 once the race got going again. With a better restart Norris would have started the stint behind Nico Hulkenberg, saving overtakes on both Alpine drivers and Valtteri Bottas.
With no delay behind these cars it’s likely that Norris would have had the pace to close the gap and overtake Carlos Sainz to finish one place higher in P4, just off the podium (see the chart below).
There was also potential for Norris to have a higher grid position for the restart. Had the team elected to stay out at the Safety Car deployment either because it was too early for the medium tyre, or simply in the hope of a red flag, then Norris would have lined up on the grid in P8 rather than P10 ahead of Tsunoda and Hulkenberg.
He would still have been on the dirty side of the grid, but two positions ahead. It is, however, very difficult for a team to predict if the Safety Car will be upgraded to red flag.
So how was the race looking without the Safety Car and red flag? With the early stop lap for Norris from the soft tyre the plan was to extend the middle stint on hards, then a shorter final stint on mediums.
With others on a one-stop strategy, in the final stint Norris would have had to make up for the additional pit stop to close the gap to Daniel Ricciardo, Oscar Piastri and George Russell, as well as overtake for position.
However, given the pace throughout the remainder of the race then it seems likely this would have been possible to return Norris to P5. Still not enough for the podium.
So what can we predict with an improved starting position?
As discussed there were two opportunities for Norris to progress through Q1 and reach somewhere around P7 on the grid next to Piastri. The biggest unknown at this stage would be whether McLaren would have kept the aggressive two-stop strategy, similar to Red Bull.
Or if, like Piastri and others, they would have committed to a one-stop race. Either way it appears that from a better initial grid position Norris had the pace to take on both Ferrari drivers and find himself on the podium – if not challenge Lewis Hamilton for the number two spot.