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Formula 1

McLaren’s pace has worried Alonso and surprised Norris

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

McLaren’s Mercedes-splitting pace in French Grand Prix qualifying left the team’s main Formula 1 rival Fernando Alonso worried, while Lando Norris admitted his fifth-place start surprised himself.

Norris beat Mercedes driver George Russell and was half a second faster than Alonso, who will start seventh as the next car from the midfield group.

McLaren and Alpine are fighting for fourth in the constructors’ championship and the trend in recent races is that Alpine has had a slight performance advantage.

Alpine introduced a significant car upgrade two races ago at the British Grand Prix and has further small changes in France.

But McLaren has a major development package this weekend and that contributed to a big advantage in qualifying at Paul Ricard.

“We came here with higher expectations, after Silverstone and Austria being very competitive,” said two-time world champion Alonso.

“We thought here we would be in front of the midfield but Alpha Tauri and McLaren seem to improve the car a lot with updates.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship French Grand Prix Practice Day Paul Ricard, France

“To be honest now when I saw the times, Lando half a second in front, it is a little bit too much. Unreachable for us and that is a little bit worrying.”

Though Alonso is holding out hope that Alpine’s race pace is stronger, there is little doubt this was a more emphatic performance from McLaren, which was particularly weak in Azerbaijan and Canada before having better pace in Britain and Austria.

Norris did make use of wet conditions to edge Alonso and qualify best-of-the-rest two races ago at Silverstone.

That weekend aside, though, McLaren has not been this competitive since Monaco – where Norris also managed to split the two Mercedes.

“Very surprised, actually,” said Norris when asked by The Race about his result and the quality of his lap.

“After the pace in Q1, Q2, I guess not as surprised as before. If you asked me before qualifying, where do you think we would be, it definitely wouldn’t be competing with them.

“I put it down to two things. One, the car performing very well. Two, it being a very good lap.

“There was probably one mistake, a little bit of wheelspin out of Turn 1. But apart from that was a very strong lap from myself.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship French Grand Prix Practice Day Paul Ricard, France

“That was the thing which put us ahead of one of the Mercedes. I guess I was still three tenths behind the other and there’s no way I was going three tenths quicker, so it shows they’re still ahead.

“But to have close the gap as much as we did, considering where we’ve been in the last few weekends, and where they’ve been as well – I know they were a little bit off the pace – it was definitely a surprise.

“A good one, a rewarding surprise. Whether or not we’ll be able to keep up with them in the race is another question.

“But for [qualifying] it was lovely to be ahead of one of them at least.”

The McLaren upgrade comprises a new reshaped sidepod, a new floor with improved diffuser performance and a new range of additional cooling options – as well as a reliability-driven change to the rear wing endplates.

Technical director James Key characterised it as a natural evolution of the design that had last been upgraded at May’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Key joked that “very short memories” played a part in the surprise that McLaren beat a Mercedes, having achieved that feat fairly recently.

But he admitted that “we’ve had some really poor races” in between and that the upgrade has made the car more competitive as expected.

“We expected hopefully a little bit of a step forward,” said Key.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship French Grand Prix Practice Day Paul Ricard, France

“People are bringing upgrades at different times. Alpine brought one for Silverstone, for example. So we had a couple of races of an older spec of car, and then we brought something.

“I think we can expect to see-saw a little bit as we go on.

“We’ll have to see how much track dependency there is. This is definitely a circuit we’re able to exploit it quite well. Hungary is very different. Let’s see how we go there.

“But fundamentally, it kind of delivered what we thought it should in the majority of cases.

“Importantly, it has given us a step forward. It has got a better feel to it, which was really important.

“Now we’ve got to use it and work with it and see if we can exploit a bit more from it and learn different circuits.

“That’s one of the issues we’ve had this year, that it has been a bit of going up and down depending on the nature of the track.

“We’ll have to see if Hungary we can… I’m not saying we’re going to be with Mercedes in Hungary, but certainly have a step forward to maybe where we were in Canada or Baku, for example.”

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