The 2023 Formula One Qatar Grand Prix proved to be one of the more entertaining events of the season. With more than 60 pit stops and cars unusually racing flat out, this combined with the heat proved to be a true test of the capabilities of the current crop of F1 drivers.
Of course there was the predictable whinging following the race that expecting the drivers to compete in these circumstances was a bridge too far, too dangerous and unsafe, but then again these voices don’t understand the real dangers faced by F1 drivers of yesteryear.
Piastri beats Max in Sprint
Fernando Alonso dismissed the idea that the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix was the toughest race of his career as did Max Verstappen. Yet hidden back out on track were clear signs that the RB19 may not have been the quickest car this weekend.
With qualifying on the second track session on Friday, it was clear the McLaren duo were on the pace of Verstappen throughout the sessions. Yet mistakes from both Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris meant their times were deleted and they were to start the Grand Prix 6th and 10th respectively.
On Saturday it was a different story. For Sprint qualifying, Piastri went quickest on his final run in SQ3 and Lando Norris was a tenth faster than his team mate, until he ran wide at the final corner.
Lando’s first run in SQ3 was quick enough to see him take second place ahead of the soon to be crowned world champion Max Verstappen in his RB19.
RB19 not designed for one lap pace
Of course Max Verstappen was handicapped in final qualifying due to him exceeding track limits on his first run, so he was forced to take additional car on his final attempt which saw him claim just third place for the afternoon’s Sprint race.
Yet the signs were already there that McLaren upgrades since Austria have made the MCL60 quicker and quicker and it is now close to the masterful RB19 if not a tad faster over one lap.
Red Bull have admitted their car design for this year was not intended to optimise one lap qualifying pace, but rather be quicker over the length of an entire Grand Prix.
Part of the consideration was to ensure the RB19 was kind to its tyres and in general n the hands of Verstappen it has suffered the least degradation in tyre wear of all the competitors on the 2023 grid.
FIA rule switch changed the game
McLaren proved in the Sprint race, when driving flat out their car was a match for the Red Bull of Max, as Oscar Piastri traded fastest lap times with the world champion during the final few laps of the Sprint race.
Further, Max was unable to close the gap to the young Australian who took his first win in a Formula One car, much to the frustration of his more experienced team mate who has yet to enjoy that experience.
If proof was needed the McLaren is as quick as the RB19, it came on Sunday as the FIA were forced to change the rules for the race due to concerns over possible exploding tyres.
Each driver was limited to 18 laps on any of the tyres they use, which de facto turned the race into a 3 stop strategic affair.
Early race pace confusing
With Norris starting 10th and Piastri in sixth behind a host of other quick cars, the hopes of the team would have been just to score as many points as possible as they hunt down Aston Martin for fourth place.
Yet with Lewis Hamilton driving into his team mate at turn one, the door opened for Piastri to slip through into second place. Norris benefitted from the sympathetic spinning Mercedes’ cars and was quickly in 5th spot behind Alonso and Leclerc.
However, due to four cars having stopped under the safety car caused by Hamilton, the order on tracked been affected. By lap 29 these false positions had unwound and the order of the cars on track reflected the true positions of the cars.
Formula Stats posted on X their analysis of the race pace from lap 29 onwards where both McLaren cars had the benefit of ‘clean air’ with no cars to overtake in front of them.
McLaren average lap time quicker than Max
It reveals McLaren delivered the quickest average lap times with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, 0.195 seconds per lap slower over the remaining 28 laps of the race.
The Mercedes of George Russell which had to four stop due to the early crash between the drivers, had to make a number of overtakes and so was 0.567seconds a lap slower than the McLaren’s.
The bad news for Ferrari is their sole driver Charles Leclerc despite spending much of the time in clean air was an astonishing 0.852s a lap slower than the papaya liveried cars, which does not bode well for their hopes of catching Mercedes over the final five races of the year.
Of course it is obvious McLaren cars were quicker than Max’s Red Bull, particularly in the case of Lando Norris, given he started in P10 and was over ten seconds behind the dutch driver in the early part of the race. At the chequered flag Lando was less than sic=x seconds behind Max and Piastri just 4.833s.
Austin the real test at the top
The real test for McLaren will come next time out in Austin, when normal racing service should be resumed. There the cars will only one or two stop and it will reveal whether when preserving the tyres the McLaren MCL60 is as still able to match the race pace of the RB19.
Much of Verstappen’s race strategy this season has been to do a ‘Vettel’ and take the lead of the Grand Prix early on and build a gap to the field.
Even if the McLaren’s don’t have the long run race pace of the RB19, if they can capitalise early doors and force Verstappen to follow, this may upset the pecking order and the strategy for the car design Red Bull have implemented this season.
All in all this bodes well for the remainder of the year given there should be competitive racing for the remains Grand Prix wins on the table.