Two weeks ago, the Italian Grand Prix ended in pure elation for team McLaren with Daniel Ricciardo taking the outfit's first victory since 2012 – ending a win-drought of more than 3,000 days. Not only that; but 21-year-old McLaren second driver, Lando Norris, secured the second step of the podium.
Pundits who prefer to reference telemetry data instead of watching real-world racing accredited this win to McLaren's blistering top speed that comes courtesy of a technologically-loaded cocktail of Mercedes-AMG power and clever aerodynamics. "Yes," they said: "McLaren is always going to be the favourite on such a high-speed circuit like Monza". "They got lucky following the successful sprint race on Saturday."
Firstly, McLaren hasn't been the favourite since the start of F1's hybrid era. In fact, it has been a gradual slip from favour and consciousness since Hamilton’s first title in 2008. Race suspensions, reliability issues, and the fact that the British constructor lost Hamilton to Mercedes at the end of 2012 spelt doom for the once-dominant team that now spun its wheels in a quest to just score a podium position.
Not even the double World Champion line-up of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso could secure the team any podium places when the team returned to Honda power, a relationship that has historically worked wonders.
Then, in 2018, Red Bull Racing – in a move that was a tad over-dramatized by the Netflix Drive to Survive series – chose to terminate their relationship with engine supplier Renault due to reliability issues and instead partnered with Honda; a decision that was questioned by many due to Honda's track record in modern F1. While Red Bull hasn't looked back, McLaren chose to go, for the first time in the team's history, with Renault power. And it paid off, to an extent, with Carlos Sainz scoring a surprise podium for the team based on a technicality at the 2019 Brazilian GP – the first since 2014. McLaren secured two more podiums with the Renault power unit with a first for Norris in Austria and a second-place standing for Sainz at Monza. Things were clearly looking up.
And yet, it appears that when the going is good, the drivers receive the lion’s share of the credit while the opposite is also true. And this brings me to my next point. Formula One is, first and foremost, a team sport – yes icons do emerge and yes talent has a major part to play but it's about more than just that. Even the fastest car will be uncompetitive in the hands of a mediocre driver, while the fastest driver will surely be lapped strapped into an uncompetitive package.
Between car and driver, there is also a team. Designers, engineers, strategists, data analysts who convey their findings to said strategists, mechanics, performance coaches all play a crucial role in the success of a driver in a respective car. If just one element is lacking, no amount of talent or raw performance can make up for the inherent deficit – as we've seen at the recent Russian GP.
Sure; luck, chance, coincidence – whichever philosophy you subscribe to – has its place in any given GP weekend but then again, the adage of “luck is the residue of planning” also rings true. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz for one was lucky to benefit from a slipstream leading into the first corner where he comfortably took the lead from pole-sitter, Lando Norris. For a few laps, it looked like the Scuderia could be back to its winning ways.
Based on Ferrari's thousands of simulations and calculations they called him in for a stop which, as it turned out, was a bit premature. Norris was back in a comfortable lead setting consistent times on tyres that were losing considerable grip with each passing lap. He was in full control of the Sochi Grand Prix, though, and not even Lewis Hamilton charging through the field following a slow start looked able to challenge for a win.
Meanwhile, title challenger Max Verstappen made good progress from the back of the grid following a grid penalty after a coming-together with Lewis Hamilton at Monza two weeks ago. Red Bull also used this as an opportunity for damage control to fit a fourth Honda power unit to the back of the car since the chances of the Dutch driver winning the race looked slim from the onset.
Luck changes, though, as do strategies and Merc’s strategy to secure Lewis his record-breaking 100th win looked to be working the best with the world champion soon challenging McLaren's lead and breathing down the diffuser of the young Norris who's having the race of his career. He didn't flinch and even looked to be creating a bit of a gap between himself and the charging Merc when, again, teams were forced to reconsider strategies. It started drizzling.
Lewis, despite at first protesting Merc’s strategic call to pit him for intermediate tyres, decided to follow the team’s strategic decision. For a second, it looked like Norris was going to sail to a relatively easy win since he managed to keep the car in check despite the lack of grip. The drizzle then turned into a mighty slippery drizzle.
Even before Hamilton’s stop, the McLaren driver’s engineer advised him that ‘inters’ might be the right call for the current conditions where he simply replied, “yeah’ shut up!”. Words I’m sure will haunt the young driver for some years to come. Grip levels were virtually zero with Hamilton again commencing his charge.
There’s no beating physics, unfortunately, not even at the hands of raw talent. The McLaren inevitably aquaplaned and as Norris tried to re-join the circuit he saw the black Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton speeding past to secure the British veteran's 100th top step of the podium. And Max Verstappen? Well, by some strategic miracle and the intervention of the weather, the title challenger managed to race to a spectacular second-place finish, still well within reach of the F1 crown.
F1 is, first and foremost, a team sport. There are so many human elements that must be in perfect sync to even just challenge for a podium. Of course, just a splotch of luck in some form or another also doesn’t hurt. And yes, Lando Norris will regret his decision not to change tyres for some time. And while he didn’t secure what looked like his first-ever top-tier victory, it counts towards what is ultimately known as experience but we expect him to come back even stronger.
In the world of F1, victories are won as a team and it’s also lost as a team – the frequency, however, is dictated by how well the team works as a unit.