Revealed: McLaren’s biggest ‘headache’ left in pursuit of Red Bull

Michelle Foster
McLaren team-mates Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris fist bump in parc ferme.

McLaren have two future World Champions in Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris.

Closing the gap to Max Verstappen to run second and third on the track, McLaren’s toughest task lies ahead and no, it’s not developing the car.

“I’d rather have this kind of headache,” Andrea Stella declared to Sky F1 after the Qatar Grand Prix when questioned about the growing rivalry between Lando Norris and his rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri.

On a night when McLaren issued team orders favouring Piastri as he ran second to Verstappen, putting him first in line to win a Grand Prix had trouble befallen the Red Bull driver, Norris questioned McLaren’s team orders.

McLaren’s guiding principle is ‘team comes first’

Race engineer Will Joseph: “Lando, we’re going to hold position, bring it home.”
Norris: “Why do you want to do that? We have a big gap. I’m clearly a lot quicker.”
Joseph: “Lando, we see that, we know that, it doesn’t matter. We’re worried a little bit about Russell, the gap [is] 13.4s ahead, we think he might put a soft on towards the end of the race and be quick.”
Norris: “Exactly, you’re worried, so…”

Trouble, though, didn’t come Verstappen’s way and he raced to his 14th win of his campaign with Piastri second at the chequered flag and Norris in third place. He crossed the line 1.1s behind his team-mate, perhaps showing McLaren and the world that he could’ve taken P2, and later spoke about “missing out” in Qatar.

Feelings of missing out when finishing P3, his third successive grand prix podium, are a notable difference from McLaren’s early-season form and frustrations when points were hard to come by.

But shaving a second off the MCL60’s lap time with their Austrian and Singapore upgrades, the once heavily criticised Woking team has emerged as Red Bull’s nearest challenger. Or best to say Verstappen’s.

Because therein lies the crux of the brewing headache for Stella: Red Bull have one driver to placate whereas McLaren have two.

Even if, as is once again being widely reported, the reigning World Champions drop Sergio Perez at the end of this season, they’ll still have a number two man in the other car, whether they’re an Aussie or Kiwi.

Stella is well aware that any dissent needs to be nipped in the bud now while Norris and Piastri are racing for points because down the line, when potentially bigger prices are at stake, so too are bigger mistakes.

“We do prepare always these kind of objectives, we remind them of our racing principles all the time in preparation for an event and before the race,” he said. “And one of the principles is that the team comes first. We are fair and the drivers just need to trust us.”

Trust that McLaren will do the fair thing, trust that McLaren have both their interests in mind, but trust that at the end of the day McLaren will do what’s best for McLaren.

Balancing team’s agenda v the drivers’ goals

But ‘team comes first’ is not an easy principle to maintain, at least not for the drivers when they are of the calibre of Norris and Piastri. It’s safe to say neither is a wingman, sensational or otherwise.

Arriving on the grid in 2019, Norris was lauded as a future World Champion, a sentiment McLaren CEO Zak Brown has uttered several times.

From Norris is “driving like a future World Champion” to he’s “like Lewis Hamilton, he’s an F1 World Champion in the making”, Brown has long talked up his British driver.

It’s a song, though, that’s now being sung about Piastri.

Brown said back in May that “early indications are we’ve got a future World Champion on our hands” and reiterated that again only last month.

Two future World Champions, but history says during teams’ multi-year reigns, more often than not, only one driver wins.

There are of course exemptions to that; McLaren with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, McLaren again with Prost and Ayrton Senna, Williams with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, and Mercedes when Nico Rosberg interrupted Lewis Hamilton’s reign. recommends

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Both Norris and Piastri have made it abundantly clear, they’re here to win and not just races.

“I want to do it with McLaren, first of all, it’s just a lot more special to do it that way,” Norris said earlier this year. “I have a contract for the next two years so I do want to do it with McLaren. I believe they can, otherwise, I wouldn’t have signed the contract in the first place.”

As for Piastri, told that Brown has tipped him to win a World title, he said: “We’re not here to mess around, that that’s what we’re here to try and achieve. I also want to achieve that, probably even more so than Zak does.”

Trust comes before a two-pronged McLaren attack

With arguably the best line-up on the grid, at the very least one that ranks in the top three, McLaren with their future World Champion drivers and ever-improving Formula 1 car are shaping up contenders next season.

McLaren will not only have more wind tunnel time than Red Bull, also Mercedes and Ferrari, perhaps even Aston Martin, but they now seem to have a firm grasp on what to do with that as this year’s gains have shown.

Tipped by the likes of Eddie Jordan to be Red Bull’s nearest challenger, again best to say Verstappen’s, the Woking team will go into next season hopefully having made further inroads on Red Bull’s advantage and secure in the knowledge they can launch a two-pronged attack.

Because, unlike at other teams such as Mercedes were the discontent appears to be mounting, McLaren know their two super-star drivers will listen to team orders.

Having opened the door as they did in Qatar to questions, and without lambasting the driver for it, Stella is open to Norris and Piastri challenging the team’s orders because they want to understand the driver’s position.

But, the caveat to that he said is “once we come back to you, just respect it”.

It’s a case of so far so good for McLaren and the trust mission, but “we need it to stay there” says Stella…

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