MPH: McLaren has a winning F1 car. Now it needs the Red Bull mentality


Lando Norris could already have three F1 wins in 2024, had it not been for tiny errors that handed Max Verstappen victory. Mark Hughes looks at the fine details that separating McLaren from the championship-tested Red Bull

McLaren of Lando Norris pulls out of F1 pits in front of team pitwall

McLaren has shown it has the pace to win but it's losing out because of small details


Such is the McLaren’s pace that Lando Norris is now coming into race weekends in the expectation of fighting for the win, regardless of circuit traits, no longer relying on favourable circumstances. This is the first time in his F1 career he’s had that, the first time this incarnation of the team has experienced it.

The speed of the car is magnifying the importance of tiny details as they take on the Max Verstappen/Red Bull juggernaut, as was very evident last weekend in Barcelona, but was also the case in Montreal. A sharper call at the safety car in Canada and a better start off the line in Spain and Norris would quite feasibly have won the last two races. Ahead of this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, he was reflecting on that.

Much of the focus of the team’s post-Spain analysis was upon Norris’s start and the extra two metres Verstappen got on him as they went to the second phase of their clutches. Norris was taking the responsibility for it. “Looks like my timing on the throttle was milliseconds off in that second phase,” he says, “and that’s what lost me those two metres. This season my starts have been very consistent and up there as one of the very best. But I want to be the best. In every little area, just in preparation or more practice on Friday and Saturday and getting these things nailed down. That tiny difference between us at the start made all the difference in the world between our fishing positions.”

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Both the team and Norris himself are acquiring a more serious edge, as the strength in depth of Red Bull and Verstappen is revealed. Red Bull is now turning up at tracks believing it might have the fastest car of the weekend but maybe not. Just as is McLaren. The difference is going to be which of them pulls everything out of what the car can give them. “It’s important not to over-react,” continued Norris. “There are tiny little things to tidy up, as a team. But a lot of it is already where it needs to be. We’re against one of the best-ever drivers in F1, against one of the best performing teams in F1. Everything needs to be executed perfectly and that one thing last week that wasn’t is what cost us…”

It’s a matter of calm fine-honing, focusing in closer on the tiny operational differences, analysing in more detail the deficits in the critical areas. In Montreal the in-the-moment requirement to re-assess the priority of talking through a strategic choice in favour of the imperative provided by the safety car came a few seconds too late. Is there something procedural in the communications which can be improved? Is there something in the sensation through the clutch paddles which could have made the difference at the start in Spain? Something in the software? Is the tyre preparation right?

Listening to their respective radios, Verstappen receives a greater number of direct procedural instructions. It’s as if they are the years-honed refinements of running at the front. Just as were the multiple practice starts Verstappen was doing here in Austria a couple of years ago.

Max Verstappen leads Lando Norris in 2024 Canadian Grand Prix

Procedure perfection has helped to keep Verstappen ahead of a racy Norris

Mar Thompson/Getty via Red Bull

It’s a challenge to keep that calm focus when the excitement of winning regularly is so tantalisingly close. The game becomes more serious when the car is fast enough. “Yeah, it’s definitely a bit more nervy,” admits Lando, “but if you compare my Sochi ’21 radio to now it’s completely different. Last week it would have been easy to panic, attacking George [Russell] and taking us off, or in covering the others at the stops. I know we got some criticism for that but only from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Control, making winning a routine, getting everyone into that mental space. It’s a nice challenge to have.

“You’re just more hungry to win and therefore more disappointed if you don’t. It means a bit more. It’s what you’ve dreamt of being able to do since you were a kid.”