Stella: McLaren would have done “same strategy” even in the lead of F1 Spanish GP

Photo Credits: McLaren Racing
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McLaren team principal Andrea Stella revealed McLaren was planning to do an offset tyre strategy at the Spanish GP even if Lando Norris retained his lead out of turn one, as it believed tyre degradation was a more important factor than track position, as overtaking is now “easy” around the historically-difficult Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Norris lost the lead from pole position in the opening metres of the race, as Max Verstappen squeezed his way past (partly through the grass) and George Russell swooped around the outside of the pair to take first place at the first turn.

Now out of position, Norris had to fight his way past George Russell after the first round of pit stops, in which the McLaren extended by seven laps compared to most of its rivals. It brought a performance advantage in tyre life and grip, but after swiftly getting past Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton, the winner of the Miami GP struggled to make significant inroads on Russell for several laps.

When he did get to the Mercedes, Norris faced some stern defence from his fellow Briton, and lost significant time in a battle that went for as long as five corners before the McLaren eventually pulled ahead.

Speaking after the race in Spain, Andrea Stella was adamant that the delay behind the Mercedes was one of the “deciding factors” that denied Norris a more serious shot at Verstappen in the closing stages – and defended the offset tyre strategy, saying it would have been the same had Norris retained his lead:

“I think we would have done exactly the same strategy, even leading,” said Stella. “Because we are in Barcelona. In Monaco we would have done a different strategy [due to the difficulty in overtaking].

“We were very surprised when we saw people going [to the pits] on lap 16, 17. For me that’s a bit of self-inflicted pain at this circuit, because the degradation is so high and overtaking is easy.

“So actually we thought this is going to bring us back in the race. And we went for our race, [but] we just lost a little bit too [much] behind [George] Russell at the start.

“Otherwise, the race would have come to us at the end of the 66 laps. So actually I would like to praise the good work of our strategists. Because somehow this is what we had in mind [even with a good start].

“And it sort of unfolded the way it already would. Should people just feel the pressure to go and pit? But obviously sometimes the pressure to go and pit depends on how you use your tyres. And sometimes you just have to pit, if that makes sense.

“But here it can be very costly if you start pitting too early.”

Stella did recognize that there were other areas that could have been optimized in order to beat the Red Bull, including the pit stops – Norris’ last stop was clocked at 3.6 seconds – and a better race start, but praised the Briton’s capacity to keep the car intact in what was a three-wide moment for the lead of the grand prix on the opening lap:

“Everything is getting extremely tight. Which means that the details do become very important. Because you have no margin in which you can compensate any little imprecision.

“I would say that, as for today, the main factor is that we couldn’t defend the first position. In Barcelona this is not necessarily a surprise, because you have such a long run to corner one. The cars run high downforce, so as soon as you gain a bit of slipstream, it makes you so much faster than the car ahead.

“Which meant that Lando was not in condition to defend his pole position. And I actually appreciated his wise approach, whereby he stayed out of trouble. The race we know is going to come to us.

“Just the time lost behind Russell, it was too much. So I would say that a couple of positions lost at corner one. And the time lost behind Russell, they are the two decisive factors.

“The pitstop, probably another one second. But in fairness, even the one second. If we were behind Verstappen at the start, if we had been behind Verstappen at the start, I think we could have played our cards with good chances.

“I think actually Lando’s start wasn’t very bad at all. It was a decent start.

“He’s almost one car ahead of Max. The fact is that Russell got the double slipstream of Lando and Max. And in corner one, I think Lando was just very wise.

“Because it’s a second and your race is gone. And that’s not the way we want to race. We want to stay in the race.

“So I think from an opportunity point of view, as was said before, it’s more of a detail. You can do an even better start. You could have been one meter ahead.”

When asked about the relative pace between Red Bull and McLaren on what was supposed to be one of Red Bull’s strongest tracks this season so far, the Italian said the pace was even between both cars, and explained it swung around only because of track position or offset tyre strategies:

“I think the race pace was very, very similar. Very, very similar.

“I think the fact that we were faster at the end is because we had fresher tyres. The fact that he was faster at the start is because we were behind Russell. But it would almost look like the great balance of performance that we had in qualifying, parity of performance, almost like transferred into the race, where normally you have some variations as a function of how you interact with the tyres.

“But actually today, I think it was very similar. Which, once again, in a track that is so demanding on tyres, so demanding on aerodynamics, I think that’s really good news for the progress that we have made with the performance of the car.”

The 53-year-old believes Norris being so upset to openly admit he “should have won” is a good sign for the competitiveness at the front of the F1 field, as mere “details” can make the difference between winning and coming second –  a stark difference to Red Bull’s supreme domination of 2023 and the early part of the 2024 season:

“But from Lando’s point of view, I think he just drove very well the entire weekend. If he’s upset for a P2 finish in two seconds from Max, then this is really good news for everyone, including Formula One.

“Because it means that we have races, and it means that with little details, like defending your position, we finally can have some different winners than Max.”