Lando Norris felt he should have earned third on the grid for the Austrian Grand Prix as a perfect storm of factors transformed McLaren into a surprise frontrunner in Formula 1 qualifying.
Norris used a heavily upgraded McLaren to great effect at the Red Bull Ring and qualified fourth, earning his and the team’s second-best grid position of the season after a surprise third in Spain.
This was more competitive than that Barcelona showing, though, and less dependent on the underachievement of others, as Norris lapped just a quarter of a second slower than poleman Max Verstappen.
He was 0.077s adrift of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, too, and Norris felt he would have beaten his former team-mate had he not slightly missed the apex of the final corner, understeered and dropped around 8km/h (5mph) minimum speed versus his previous lap.
“The last corner is a very tricky corner because you’re on the entry kerb, which makes the car very nervous and I just missed the apex by a little bit,” Norris told SkySportsF1.
“And as it compresses, if you miss it, you understeer so badly.
“I just crapped myself and thought I was over track limits and I just had to back out of it.
“It definitely cost me P3, which I’m a bit annoyed by because I would have loved to beat Carlos. But I’m happy with P4.”
The new McLaren upgrades, which include the floor, sidepod inlets and bodywork, have made an immediate improvement, although this result is not entirely down to that.
This track has always been kind to McLaren, and Norris. The three straights are all DRS zones, helping trade off the bigger wing levels that McLaren liked to use.
That is probably a factor again this year, given the 2023 McLaren has tended to be draggy and, as Norris has repeatedly pointed out, one of the slowest on the straights.
Aiding that further is the upgrade, as improved aerodynamic efficiency – a target since the start of the season – has resulted in more downforce and less drag. This is crucial around the Red Bull Ring given its long straights and the high-speed second half of the lap.
“I don’t know any of the true numbers or anything just yet,” said Norris.
“But it’s definitely been a step forward. There have definitely been things that are shown to have improved. I have more confidence with the car in certain places.
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed everything. It’s not like the characteristic is loads better. But at the same time, we didn’t expect it to be a lot better.
“We just expected a global improvement, which it’s done.”
If the wing levels are a factor again it likely means McLaren has been slightly flattered in qualifying, which also repeats a trend of this season.
The car’s one-lap pace has been stronger than its race pace, because new tyres and DRS help offset its biggest weaknesses.
Conditions may also have fed into the equation as well, given McLaren has tended to perform better when it is cooler, and this weekend’s sprint format means qualifying was held at 5pm on Friday, so track temperatures dropped around 10C from practice.
All of this is supported by the fact Oscar Piastri, who is using the older-spec McLaren, matched Norris in the first part of qualifying and should have been in Q3 as well but had a lap that was two tenths slower than Norris deleted in Q2.
It means McLaren did just have a more competitive car this weekend, and on a shorter circuit, which is why Norris will reserve judgement of the upgrade until next weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone – where McLaren will have more new parts.
For the rest of this event though, there is one more factor to consider: Norris’s affinity for this circuit – which always brings out the best in him.
“It just suits my driving style pretty well,” he said.
“My strongest point is probably high speed corners. Against every driver I’ve been against it’s probably been my strongest suit – against Carlos, against Daniel [Ricciardo].
“There’s a decent amount of that here where you have to commit, you have to find the limit yourself.
“And then you’ve got these big braking zones which maybe when I started F1 were not my strongest point but I’ve turned into something quite strong of mine.
“And that’s pretty much all you’ve got here: three big braking zones and four very high speed corners.
“It just suits me well, and I’m comfortable to push and find the limit very easily. And it’s my most successful track. So, I love it.”