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Real or ‘Lando specific’? McLaren’s view of its huge F1 step

by Josh Suttill
7 min read

McLaren believes Lando Norris’ fourth-place finish at the Austrian Grand Prix in the upgraded MCL60 is a “milestone” in the team’s “journey to the front” of Formula 1.

Norris debuted the first half of McLaren’s comprehensive new upgrade package this past weekend with great success, qualifying fourth on Friday and third on Saturday before racing to fourth in the grand prix – with an anti-stall-invoked backwards slide in the sprint the only blemish.

What’s “most encouraging” for McLaren is that its one-lap Mercedes and Aston Martin-beating prowess – already shown by Norris’s third on the grid at Barcelona last month – could actually be translated over a race distance, with the early signs indicating the upgraded MCL60 produces far more mid-corner downforce and consequently, at somewhere like the Red Bull Ring, suffers less tyre degradation.

McLaren F1 comparison Austrian GP

Team boss Andrea Stella was quick to stress the overcast conditions and Norris’s affinity for the Red Bull Ring played their role and encouraged the team “to be prudent” with its assessment of the upgrade – but neither Stella nor his star driver could hide their excitement about the success of the weekend.

During Stella’s media session in McLaren’s motorhome, thunderous applause from an unseen group could be heard in the back of the motorhome – McLaren’s hero of the day had returned to his team.

“I think this round of applause answers your question,” Stella said, having just been asked how impressive Norris had been this weekend.

“Normally in motorhomes and hospitality, you hear these noises when your driver comes from a podium or a victory so nice to see for a fifth place [at that time before it became fourth], because indeed this fifth place is a bit of milestone in our journey to the front.”

It’s a huge result in the context of McLaren’s dire start to 2023.

Lando Norris McLaren F1 Monaco GP

It missed key development targets for its 2023 car over the winter and was essentially playing a waiting game for this near-B-spec upgrade to make it to the track.

Its Azerbaijan GP upgrade was the first step but made little relative difference to its performance.

Only its excellent sixth and seventh in a wild Melbourne race kept it from the thick of the lower midfield fight. Now, the 12 points for Norris’ fourth in Austria move it 18 points clear of Haas and put it within 18 points of fifth-placed Alpine – which now looks a far more realistic target for the rest of the year.

Norris is a “specialist”, as Stella put it, at circuits such as the Red Bull Ring, having the almost Monaco-style precision through the critical corners that allows him to consistently carry so much speed through those turns – especially now with a grippier car to facilitate that.

‘Our next issue to tackle’

Lando Norris McLaren F1 Austrian GP

Norris was pleasantly surprised with his race pace, having had fears going into Sunday that he would face an inevitable slide down the order.

As ever though, Norris rarely gets carried away with an improvement and instead highlights what still needs to be done.

After all, McLaren didn’t reshape its technical structure and invest hundreds of millions into its facilities to finish fourth – it wants to enter title contention for the first time in over a decade.

“I was a bit nervous coming into the race really and honestly I thought the race pace was going to let us down a lot today, but it actually was better than I was expecting, which was a good surprise,” Norris explained.

“Still, I would say, it was not great, Fernando [Alonso] was clearly quicker at the end by quite a chunk every lap. I’m like almost crashing at every corner – but to be P5 shows we’ve taken a good step forward so I’m very happy with that.”

Norris’s reference to “almost crashing at every corner” is indicative of how challenging this year’s McLaren is to drive even with the upgrade.

Lando Norris McLaren F1 Austrian GP

“You just go to the limit of what the car can do or on the next level,” Norris said.

“The car just goes quicker around every corner but the way you have to drive it is exactly the same [as before], which is I guess our next issue to tackle.

“The things we’ve been complaining about are still the same, we’re just at a higher level. I feel like I can be more confident if we can really tackle these issues.

“I feel like they’re letting us down a lot at the minute so it’s not just about downforce, it’s about the handling and how you drive the car.

“Not just put a load more downforce on and send it. More technical things we need to try and tackle and understand.

“When we do that, I’m confident we can definitely fight some of the quicker cars ahead of us.”

Preaching caution

McLaren F1 comparison Austrian GP

Norris was able to fight with the Mercedes and Aston Martins in the race, even feeling as if he “lost quite a bit” behind Lewis Hamilton in the opening stint.

Asked by The Race if he was surprised to be quicker than the Mercedes W14s, he said: “Maybe not than the Mercedes, they didn’t look really all that good all weekend – so Mercedes, no, which is a nice thing to say.

Norris at the Red Bull Ring

2019: Qualified 6th, Finished 6th
2020: Qualified 4th, Finished 3rd
2020: Qualified 6th, Finished 5th
2021: Qualified 4th, Finished 5th
2021: Qualified 4th, Finished 5th
2022: Qualified 15th, Finished 7th (11th in sprint)
2023: Qualified 4th, Finished 4th (9th in sprint after qualifying 3rd)

“Did I expect to be quicker than the Astons? I’d probably say no, [although] they’ve also not looked super quick on one-lap pace all weekend. But normally the race pace was very strong and today it was.

“But we were quick enough to build up a big enough gap early in the stint that [Alonso] didn’t catch me up enough to get back past me.”

Stella was surprised to be fighting with supplier Mercedes and fellow customer Aston Martin but wants confirmation of the upgrade’s progress this weekend at the British Grand Prix.

Lando Norris McLaren F1 Austrian GP

“To some extent we were waiting [for the upgrade] but thanks to the upgrades we could move our competitiveness towards the top of the second group of cars,” Stella said.

“So we’re effectively a bit surprised that we could compete with Mercedes, Aston Martin and even at times being near to a Ferrari – which here they seem to have improved as well.

“So yes, we are a little surprised. But I would invoke again prudence, this could be an Austria and conditions and kind of Lando-specific situation.

“Definitely need to look at Silverstone, that could possibly be more realistic.”

Rivals’ eyebrows raised

Lando Norris McLaren F1 Austrian GP

Unsurprisingly, the drivers who were denied points by Norris’ McLaren – after having largely observed it in rearview mirrors for much of the season prior – took note.

“A lot to understand because we took a big step backwards and Lando and McLaren were a big surprise for us,” said Mercedes driver George Russell.

“So they clearly got it right.”

“I think between the track specifics and the upgrades that Ferrari and McLaren brought here maybe we lost a little bit of pace,” acknowledged Alonso.

“But I think it’s more up to us to understand why at certain circuits we seem to struggle more than the others and in a way we know beforehand and that’s the most frustrating thing.”

But Aston Martin and Mercedes have well over triple digit points relative to McLaren. For Alpine, its potential rise will be a much more pressing concern.

“We’re still focused on the teams in front, that’s very clear,” said Alpine’s Esteban Ocon.

Esteban Ocon Alpine F1 Austrian GP

“But we can see that the teams behind are also pushing forward and we can’t afford to have Lando P5 too many times like that, because otherwise he’s going to catch us very quickly with McLaren.

“That’s usually a very good track for them, they’ve finished on the podium many times here, but it should have also been a good track for us where we finished fifth last year.”

McLaren isn’t done yet either, with another 50% of this comprehensive upgrade package being delivered at Silverstone and the following rounds, and Oscar Piastri being brought up to same spec.

Confirmation of its progress will be needed at the British Grand Prix but it’s hard to look at the debut of the first half of McLaren’s upgrade as anything but a resounding success.

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