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Analysis
Formula 1 Austrian GP

What GPS data tells us about McLaren’s chances of beating Verstappen

The tightly contested battle for pole at the Austria F1 sprint gives McLaren hope, but Red Bull has key strengths for it to overcome

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, 2nd position, parks his car in Parc Ferme

A scant 0.093 seconds separated Max Verstappen and Lando Norris in their Austrian Grand Prix sprint qualifying laps, as the two once again start on the front row.

The duo were separated by less than two tenths throughout their sole SQ3 laps, the gap only growing between them during the mid-corner phase, and the superior traction of the McLaren out of corners could only mitigate the gap rather than turn the tide.

In consulting the GPS data, a similar pattern to their ultimate qualifying efforts in Barcelona emerged, although this time Norris was unable to eclipse Verstappen.

Like Spain, Verstappen carried more speed into the braking zone; the Red Bull topped out at around 2-3mph faster than Norris’ McLaren before decelerating. But Norris shed less speed on the brakes, ultimately taking a little more through the corner.

The tractive force behind the McLaren seems stronger too, allowing Norris to reclaim the bulk of the time he’d lost on the corner exits. After Turn 1, Norris brought their delta down to 0.013s as he went up the hill, but the Red Bull’s greater top-end speed ensured that Verstappen overlapped Norris’ speed trace about two-thirds of the way up the hill.

At around 197mph, Norris started to run out of steam, while Verstappen could keep the speedometer rising before getting onto the brake pedal. This continued into the next straight between Turns 3 and 4; Norris got time back by the middle of the stretch at the top of the hill, but not all of it, and this was a source of tiny fragments that added up to the lap delta between the two drivers.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

This could be due to a few factors: earlier clipping from the Mercedes powertrain, an enhanced DRS effect from the Red Bull on the straights, or simply a matter of gearing.

Equally, the McLaren’s marginally higher speed through the short-radius corners could be explained with the car having more downforce at low speeds, or through stronger compliance against the stiffly sprung Red Bull.

The gap opens up a bit more in the latter half of the lap, as the corners are a bit more flowing and allow the Red Bull to swing towards its medium-high speed performance.

Again, the McLaren is generally better on the corner exit, although Verstappen hits the throttle harder through Turn 9 as Norris is slightly more tentative. Bringing Oscar Piastri’s lap into contention as well, the Australian is a little more committed through the penultimate corner than his team-mate – although his throttle trace isn’t entirely ‘square’ either.

What this means for the rest of the weekend – or for the sprint race, at least – is that Verstappen can be expected to employ the second and third sectors to draw clear of his challengers’ overtures and shatter the one-second barrier needed for DRS. Certainly, that’s if the championship leader can head off the chance of a pincer movement into the first corner from the pair of papaya cars.

Should Norris or Piastri leapfrog the RB20 and shuffle into the lead, they’ll have to hope that their traction and canny use of energy deployment can keep Verstappen in check.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Otherwise, the Dutchman is going to benefit from his powerful DRS at the end of the straights, which will be vital to mounting an overtake into Turns 3 or 4.

With three DRS zones, that’s going to be a tough challenge, so the first lap in that scenario will be a vital component of any McLaren victory here. The MCL38’s key bugbear around the Red Bull Ring falls in its handling of Turn 7 as Verstappen carries more speed here.

A conscientious ironing out of that particularly stubborn crease should stand McLaren in good stead, but it ultimately lies in driver confidence. If neither Norris nor Piastri feel empowered enough to put their foot on the gas a little earlier, then it’s going to let Red Bull off the hook.

Once parc ferme opens again, McLaren might dial in its set-ups to handle the higher-speed sections of the course a little more easily, ideally without the expense of compromising that higher minimum speed in the tighter corners.

Again, it depends on how the first lap plays out. If McLaren has a set-up that swings more towards the race, then it’ll lend a little more intrigue to the rest of the weekend. For the time being, however, Red Bull seems to have started out on the stronger foot.

And, given that the RB20 has often been more recalcitrant in reaching its ideal set-up window, Verstappen sits firmly within the pound seats heading into Saturday’s action.

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