How a rare flat-out race helped McLaren slash Red Bull’s usual advantage

Formula 1

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McLaren were encouraged by their performance in the Japanese Grand Prix two weeks ago, but winner Max Verstappen still finished almost 20 seconds ahead in his Red Bull.

In Qatar, after 52 laps of flat-out running once the initial Safety Car period ended, the closest McLaren car of Oscar Piastri was within five seconds of the victorious Verstappen and the other McLaren MCL60 was another second back. But while McLaren have clearly made strides with their competitiveness in recent races, there was another reason why they were able to run Red Bull much closer in Losail.

Hours before the race began, the FIA confirmed special rules would be put in place for the grand prix to guard against the possibility of tyre failures. Drivers would be permitted to complete no more than 18 laps on any set of tyres, meaning they would inevitably have to make at least three pit stops during the 57 lap encounter. This was a significant change in a season where drivers have typically only needed to pit once or twice during a race distance.

In the previous races, Red Bulls strength has been extracting consistently quick lap times from its tyres the longer it runs them for. Denied the option of running the tyres as long as they liked, a key aspect of Red Bull’s superiority was neutralised.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Losail International Circuit, 2023
McLaren performed F1’s fastest ever pit stop
The McLaren drivers were well aware that the unusual circumstances of the race had played into their hands. “The Red Bull is normally that step better in the race with degradation,” said Lando Norris.

“I don’t feel like our degradation was bad today. I feel like we could push, even towards the end of stints I didn’t feel like we were suddenly struggling a lot. Maybe if it was a two-stopper and we had to eke out the tyres that bit more, that’s where we would have seen the Red Bull just be more consistent.

“In Japan, that’s where he was always a bit better, just that second part of the stint, keeping the consistency, and we would drop off a bit. So maybe we didn’t see that today.”

Verstappen acknowledged McLaren’s pace was strong, particularly towards the end of the race, but said the enforced three-stop strategy had helped them.

“They have been really quick all weekend,” said Verstappen. “I think especially with the fuel coming out, it looked like they were again picking up more and more pace, compared to me.

“Plus, of course, that three-stop that was mandatory, I think was not ideal for us, personally. Because our car is good on tyres. So, when you need to do longer stints because that’s the fastest way around here, it would have probably been a bit better.”

McLaren ‘s progress was also aided by the team performing the fastest ever recorded four-tyre pit stop. Norris was stationary for just 1.8 seconds when he came in for the second time on lap 27. This wasn’t the quickest complete visit to the pits of the race, though McLaren also achieved that, when Piastri made his final pit stop on lap 43.

Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo, Losail International Circuit, 2023
Alfa Romeo’s strategy delivered their best result of the season
The strategy restrictions were especially bad news for Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez, who was unable to extend his opening stint on the hard tyres to make his way up the order. That said, he was passed early on by George Russell, who had to pit for repairs on lap one yet four-stopped his way to fourth place from there.

Alfa Romeo exploited the unconventional strategy arrangements to take their biggest points haul of the season so far by splitting their drivers’ strategies. Valtteri Bottas came in at the end of the Safety Car period, which left him needing only two more pit stops to reach the end of the race.

“It was a really clean race and good strategy,” said Bottas. “Of course, it felt a bit strange to stop after three laps from a good position, but in the end that meant all the rest of the stints were just equal stints. We thought that would be the fastest way to the flag, and it was so I’m happy with it.”

Had the safety car reappeared, Bottas would have been at a disadvantage, but the plan worked perfectly and he came home in eighth. His team mate Zhou Guanyu was next, having risen 10 places from 19th on the grid by being one of the last to pit each time, and finishing the race with a five-lap sprint on the soft compound tyres.

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2023 Qatar Grand Prix lap chart

The positions of each driver on every lap. Click name to highlight, right-click to reset. Toggle drivers using controls below:

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2023 Qatar Grand Prix race chart

The gaps between each driver on every lap compared to the leader’s average lap time. Very large gaps omitted. Scroll to zoom, drag to pan and right-click to reset. Toggle drivers using controls below:

2023 Qatar Grand Prix lap times

All the lap times by the drivers (in seconds, very slow laps excluded). Scroll to zoom, drag to pan and toggle drivers using the control below:

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2023 Qatar Grand Prix fastest laps

Each driver’s fastest lap:

Rank # Driver Car Lap time Gap Avg. speed (kph) Lap no.
1 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’24.319 230.55 56
2 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’24.842 0.523 229.13 47
3 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes 1’24.921 0.602 228.92 48
4 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’24.992 0.673 228.73 57
5 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’25.770 1.451 226.65 35
6 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’25.793 1.474 226.59 55
7 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’26.045 1.726 225.93 57
8 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’26.220 1.901 225.47 50
9 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’26.323 2.004 225.2 54
10 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’26.352 2.033 225.13 55
11 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’26.444 2.125 224.89 56
12 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’26.450 2.131 224.87 42
13 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’26.652 2.333 224.35 54
14 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes 1’26.666 2.347 224.31 57
15 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’27.067 2.748 223.28 46
16 40 Liam Lawson AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’27.113 2.794 223.16 54
17 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’27.174 2.855 223 55
18 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes 1’27.983 3.664 220.95 31

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2023 Qatar Grand Prix tyre strategies

The tyre strategies for each driver:

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2023 Qatar Grand Prix pit stop times

How long each driver’s pit stops took:

Rank # Driver Team Complete stop time (s) Gap to best (s) Stop no. Lap no.
1 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren 27.489 3 43
2 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 27.513 0.024 3 43
3 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 27.596 0.107 2 22
4 4 Lando Norris McLaren 27.611 0.122 2 27
5 4 Lando Norris McLaren 27.677 0.188 3 44
6 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 27.781 0.292 1 9
7 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull 27.808 0.319 1 17
8 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 27.809 0.32 3 40
9 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren 27.868 0.379 2 25
10 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 27.873 0.384 2 25
11 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 28.103 0.614 2 34
12 4 Lando Norris McLaren 28.134 0.645 1 13
13 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 28.156 0.667 2 21
14 40 Liam Lawson AlphaTauri 28.171 0.682 3 39
15 63 George Russell Mercedes 28.191 0.702 4 50
16 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 28.228 0.739 1 12
17 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 28.233 0.744 1 17
18 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas 28.274 0.785 2 27
19 63 George Russell Mercedes 28.314 0.825 3 32
20 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin 28.373 0.884 1 11
21 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin 28.393 0.904 3 44
22 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine 28.429 0.94 1 11
23 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin 28.432 0.943 2 26
24 63 George Russell Mercedes 28.542 1.053 2 14
25 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas 28.591 1.102 3 39
26 40 Liam Lawson AlphaTauri 28.665 1.176 2 21
27 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas 28.743 1.254 1 3
28 23 Alexander Albon Williams 28.747 1.258 2 31
29 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo 28.815 1.326 3 52
30 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo 28.854 1.365 2 35
31 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren 28.875 1.386 1 12
32 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 28.886 1.397 1 3
33 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo 28.946 1.457 3 39
34 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas 28.948 1.459 2 21
35 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine 28.961 1.472 1 10
36 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine 28.969 1.48 2 25
37 23 Alexander Albon Williams 28.981 1.492 3 44
38 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo 28.984 1.495 1 18
39 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine 29.169 1.68 3 43
40 23 Alexander Albon Williams 29.253 1.764 1 18
41 40 Liam Lawson AlphaTauri 29.33 1.841 1 3
42 2 Logan Sargeant Williams 29.373 1.884 2 26
43 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo 29.387 1.898 2 21
44 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 29.399 1.91 3 39
45 2 Logan Sargeant Williams 29.436 1.947 1 13
46 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 29.726 2.237 3 51
47 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo 29.977 2.488 1 3
48 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine 30.192 2.703 2 26
49 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas 30.331 2.842 3 39
50 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull 33.165 5.676 3 43
51 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull 33.246 5.757 2 31
52 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine 34.856 7.367 3 44
53 63 George Russell Mercedes 39.686 12.197 1 1
54 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas 39.879 12.39 1 13

2023 Qatar Grand Prix

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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13 comments on “How a rare flat-out race helped McLaren slash Red Bull’s usual advantage”

  1. During the race I was wondering: what if you drive a 18-lap stint, pull in the pits, but pass the finishline before boxing for fresh tyres? Then effectively you start your 19th lap with old tyres. Albon for instance had his pitbox placed after the finish line. However nobody was penalized for it, so I guess it was discussed beforehand.

    1. All teams had their pit box after the start/finish line not just Williams.

      So technically all that ran to the maximum exceeded it as they started their next lap however the part in pitlane is at low speed. Pirelli in advising the max # of laps per set of tires deducted only (almost) completed push laps for the max 18 for used tire sets.
      That is why Max had a set of softs with 18 lap limit but that was used as he quickly aborted his 2nd Q3 lap attempt.

      It is also the reason why Max achieved a grand chelem despite not leading the entire race. At the end of lap 17 Max came into the pits crossing the start/finish line first, then did his pitstop but came out 2-3 seconds behind Albon who hadn’t pitted yet. Albon had to pit at the end of lap 18 but before Albon crossed the start/finish line in the pitlane, Max had already crossed the start/finish line on track and thus statistically lead the whole race.

    2. You need to do 19 laps to be more than 18 laps. He started the 19th lap but he didn’t do 19 laps… It’s obvious but I think most people didn’t get it.

    3. So couldn’t a team have planned to remove 18 lap old tyres at the end of their final lap? Therefore crossing the line in the pitlane and only losing half a pitstop to the rest?

  2. Albon cut it really close: including the formation lap, his first stint was 19 laps. I expect RB didn’t want to take that gamble, so they entered the pits after 17 race-laps.
    The part about being a flat out race is another matter. I guess some could’ve gone quite a bit faster since tires weren’t a limiting factor anymore, but fuel and thermals were. For instance, I’m quite sure Max’s stint on the hards was not full blast, as his third stint was as flat as English beer

    1. Verstappen started on a used set of tyres with which he’d completed 3 laps before, so he was only allowed 17 laps on them during the race (a graphic confirming that was shown onscreen around lap 15). Used tyres could be run for (18 minus [laps completed] plus 2) laps in the race, the +2 accounting for the inlap and outlap during practice/qualifying.

      1. Couldn’t a team have planned to remove 18 lap old tyres at the end of their final lap? Therefore crossing the line in the pitlane and only losing half a pitstop to the rest?? In theory piastri could have won the race like this

        1. Yes they could, but why should they? They could just finish the race on them and don’t loose even half a pitstop.

  3. Not the flatout race helped McLaren but the fixed number of laps helped McLaren to keep close. Red Bull has a tyre advantage they can drive longer and faster on a set of tyres. You saw that in the sprint how more laps they did how faster Red Bull went. McLaren in front could keep Max behind on around the same time but in the end Max was clsoing in it’s the lack of Laps that Max prevented to attack Oscar for the win.

  4. nothing can really be gleamed from this race, the tires were artificially limited, and Max did not have to push too hard. Until Max is beaten soundly, and with him trying + RBR not having weird tire issues, then we can see how far up McLaren has come. But, they do have a Mercedes PU in the back, which is superior to what RBR have, so they should be able to beat RBR, eventually, assuming they keep optimizing their packages and have a solid foundation/basis for their development direction.

    Mercedes advantage this weekend was given their car is a better known commodity on its tires, but had the other teams more practice, and the tire allocation not been so bad, the other teams would have pulled ahead of Mercedes.

  5. RandomMallard
    9th October 2023, 14:01

    One thing that really impressed me was Alfa Romeo’s strategy. They made the early stop under SC work with Bottas, meaning he only had to make 2 green flag pit stops and finish 8th, and they managed the strategy well enough with Zhou to allow him to take 2 points once the penalties had been applied. Those 6 points take them above Haas in the Constructor’s championship which could be very big with only a few more races left.

  6. Yeah, yeah… Now imagine Verstappen doing his 100%, just like Norris and Piastri. Until they all do it any comparison is pointless. He just drove fast enough to keep that lead that he had. I’m pretty sure that he could find at least extra 15-20s over the race, probably more.

  7. Mclaren lost it when they picked an old set to start the race, Piastri lost time in traffic and any chance to win the race. Amateur mistake. In my opinion the best strategy was to start on new mediums to do full 18 laps, then put in the softs to undercut and do 8-10 laps, then medium again and finish on hards.

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