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Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

Why McLaren won't gamble with F1 Imola GP strategy in Verstappen fight

McLaren insists it has no desire to “roll the dice” with strategy in Formula 1’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in its bid to try to topple Max Verstappen.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38, in the pit lane

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The Woking-based team has emerged as Red Bull’s closest challenger at Imola, with its pace suggesting that it had the potential to grab pole position.

Despite its speed, its chances against Verstappen for the win have been weakened by Piastri’s three-place grid penalty that moves him down to fifth spot, but McLaren still clearly feels it is in the hunt for a shot at victory.

While an anticipated straightforward medium-hard one-stop strategy at a track that is hard to overtake on gives it few options to outgun Verstappen in a straight head-to-head fight, that is not to say there are no strategic options that could get it in front.

This could include risking starting on the soft to get the jump into Turn 1, or going early for an undercut at the first stops to leapfrog ahead. It could even leave its tyre change as late as possible in the hope of getting on much fresher tyres for the dash to the chequered flag. Safety Cars could also throw up other opportunities.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella is clear, however, that anything it does in its bid for glory will not be a matter of taking a gamble.

Asked by Motorsport.com about the mindset for the race, Stella said: “We hope, and we would like never to find ourselves in a condition where we'll roll the dice. We try to use some logical consideration and strategic consideration to see what's the best approach to maximise the result.

“We have to say that the run to [Turn 1] here is one of the longest of the season. So the position on the grid will not necessarily be the position, let's say, at the end of lap one.

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“We will see. In general, there's some strategic options because the hard tyres can go relatively long.

“So, you can stop early, and go for a long run and try to work with the undercut. Or you may stop later, and then you might have to overtake some people, but with fresher tyres.

“There are a few options. We will see. But the most important thing is to have the pace to be in condition to deploy these options.”

Pirelli’s head of F1 Mario Isola reckons that the temperature could be critical to how the race plays out – the cooler it gets, the less powerful the undercut is.

“If it is warm then I don’t see any issue with the warm-up of the hard, and the undercut could be powerful,” he said. “If the temperatures are much cooler, then obviously the hard would struggle a little bit with the warm-up.”

Asked if he felt there was the opportunity for McLaren to gamble and do something unexpected, Isola said: “It's difficult to really have a strategic option that is changing completely the situation here. In some other races, we had more variabilities and so it was easier to invent something.

“But in any case, I believe that we have a very close field with cars within less than one tenth of a second. And that means that we will see, for sure, big action during the race. We will have an interesting race despite the single pit stop.”

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Isola did not think that McLaren starting on softs to jump Verstappen was worth trying.

“If you want to take a risk and start with a soft, I'm not sure - just to jump in front at the first corner and try to keep the position,” he said. “I'm not sure if it is a really big advantage.

“We know that the difference in terms of metres you gain between the soft and the medium is very small, and then it's also down to the way in which the driver is starting.

“We know that Max is very good in any start, so I believe that if you attempt starting on the soft to try to overtake at the beginning, and you're not successful, you can damage your race a little bit. It's not really something that I personally would try.”

Above all else, McLaren is not naïve enough to think that it is about to embark on a simple straight fight with Verstappen. Stella says it has to keep one eye on what is going on behind too.

“I still think that Ferrari are very competitive,” he said. “Some of the lap times, especially that [Charles] Leclerc put together in free practice in his long run compared to us, looked quite impressive.

“So, if you materialise those lap times, we will not only have to look at Verstappen. We will definitely have to think of Ferrari as well.”

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