Azerbaijan GP data analysis - was McLaren’s Baku strategy even worse than Ferrari’s in Monaco?


An over-optimistic overcut attempt from McLaren left it with much less than it deserved in Baku – @_ProjectF1 analyses what could have been


McLaren secured a solid double points finish in Baku, but as ProjectF1 points out, it could have been even better


The 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was yet another race which showed the importance of the strategy department and effective driver management in the eventual outcome.

McLaren’s Baku performance was a perfect example of this: Daniel Ricciardo was on better form last weekend, but doubling down on an ill-advised overcut for Norris cost both the Australian and the team a bigger potential points haul.

It’s no secret that Ricciardo has had a tough season thus far, largely down to his own struggles in finding pace with the car. But the Azerbaijan Grand Prix showed signs of promise, with Ricciardo cutting through the field. There was reason to be optimistic, but all chances of a strong finish and a reversal of current trends were undermined by the McLaren pitwall in its application of team orders.

While Baku is often touted for reliably producing thrilling races, 2022 was a dud. And while the fight (or lack of) at the front left more to be desired, the battle in the midfield cast a spotlight on McLaren – for all the wrong reasons.


Chart 1 – Race Story: Cumulative Delta Plot

It wasn’t the finest of qualifying sessions for McLaren with Norris and Ricciardo starting the race in P11 and P12 respectively.

However, this was a positive sign for Ricciardo, who usually trails his team-mate’s qualifying position with a larger margin. So, while the absolute performance was not ideal, Ricciardo’s qualifying performance relative to that of his season so far was a step in the right direction.

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Things were likely to be challenging given McLaren’s top speed struggles due to its high-drag concept – especially against Alpine whose car philosophy lends itself to a high maximum velocity.

McLaren opted to split the strategy and start Ricciardo on the hard tyre and Norris on the mediums – as shown later in chart X.

Both drivers trailed Fernando Alonso, with Ricciardo closing the gap on the harder tyre as displayed in Chart 1. From lap 16 it is clear that Ricciardo’s race is being disturbed by Norris.

In this situation, with both drivers on different strategies, it would have made sense to let Ricciardo through to see what he could do. However, McLaren opted to hold position, a decision that would cost them dearly both immediately and down the track.


Chart 2 – Tyre Strategy Summary

As shown above, Alonso pitted on lap 18, prompting Norris to go on for an overcut attempt and pit two laps later. This meant that Ricciardo had to hold position behind his team-mate for four laps out of 51 (eight per cent of the race) – sacrificing potential pace and race time.

The scale of this time lost can be inferred by going back to Chart 1 and seeing the benefit that Pierre Gasly, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel would go on to receive by clearing traffic. Of course, some of this uplift in pace would be car and driver specific, but it is still a useful illustrative exercise.

So how did the overcut fare for Norris? Was Ricciardo’s pain worth the reward for the team?


Chart 3 – Pit Stop Gain/Loss

As Chart 3 above indicates, the overcut did not work at all. In fact, the decision to stay out longer was extremely painful, with Norris losing over 5 seconds in race time – with less than a 1sec of it being attributed to a slower pitstop compared to Alonso.

This also gives another indication as to the time loss Ricciardo suffered in order to facilitate his team-mate’s strategy.

But how did things compared from longer run pace? Let’s find out…


Chart 4 – Lap Times Compared: Trend Race Pace

While Chart 4 shows that Norris’ stint was a tale of two halves, it also illustrates how they were not necessarily balanced – with Norris lapping much slower compared to Alonso until lap 30. However, even from this point onward, Norris’ pace was not leagues better than that of his target.

To make matters worse, Ricciardo was lapping faster between laps 21 to 26 despite being on old hard tyres compared to Norris’ new set and having lost all that time in traffic and dirty air.

Granted, some of this can be put down to Norris’ falling into his own traffic. But this only serves to add to the argument against McLaren’s decision to go for the overcut. The team would have had a reasonable indication of how costly traffic would be.

Ricciardo had seen the best of his tyres and would be losing out relative to the others. And while switching to the mediums with a lighter car should have played out in theory, Chart 4 also shows that Ricciardo’s pace was not better than those with old hard tyres. This meant the Australian was not able to do more with the VSC opportunity other than recover some of his prior pain.

Chart 4 indicates too how Ricciardo’s pace on the hard tyre and Norris’ pace on the medium tyre crossed over at around lap 15. This, alongside the steep decline in the performance of the medium tyre should have been a signal to consider pitting earlier and going for the undercut with the added benefit of not holding up Ricciardo.

The option of pitting Norris under the first VSC was also something that could have played out better – though there’s a big benefit of hindsight in this comment.

As a final point, the task of overtaking the Alpines with their top speed was always going to be a big ask for McLaren.


Chart 5 – Hypothetical analysis

Putting this all together, along with Chart 5, explores what could have been for Ricciardo with a very simple hypothetical take. By swapping Ricciardo’s lap time with Hamilton’s for laps 16 to 21 inclusive (the period in which he was adversely affected by Norris) and keeping everything else the same, Ricciardo would have been clear of Alonso by the time he pitted on lap 33.

Why Hamilton? Because was not too far from Ricciardo in the race and in relatively clean air (unlike Gasly). The fresher tyres for Hamilton do make the comparison a bit messy, but they did have similar pace. Crucially this also means there would be no need for Ricciardo to try and on-track pass with the speed disadvantage.

These assumptions may be a tall order of course, but the purpose of this exercise is to visualise how a little bit more performance in this small window of the race could have made a profound impact on Ricciardo’s race (and, potentially his ongoing confidence).

In the end, it cost Ricciardo a position against Alonso and McLaren valuable points in the constructor’s championship.

Project F1 turns data into graphics that uncover race pace and strategy
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