Daniel Ricciardo’s Italian Grand Prix victory ends a year-long injustice for McLaren.
The string of surprise Formula 1 winners has been a wonderful source of stories over the last 12 months, with three midfield teams scoring victories.
Yet the team that has been objectively the best in the midfield for three seasons now had consistently missed out until now.
When Lewis Hamilton had a stop-go penalty and Max Verstappen retired from the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, AlphaTauri won the race. McLaren missed out because the red flag period cost Carlos Sainz track position – instead of inheriting the lead when Hamilton served his penalty, he had to fight his way back to second.
When George Russell’s stunning Mercedes debut in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix was wrecked by a pitstop blunder and a puncture, and Verstappen had been wiped out in a three-car first-lap clash, Racing Point emerged victorious with a last-to-first drive from Sergio Perez. McLaren missed out because Sainz was on the wrong strategy while Lando Norris had started at the back because of a grid penalty.
And when both Red Bulls were taken out of the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix at the start and Mercedes made the wrong strategy call that left Hamilton taking the restart solo on the grid and on the wrong tyres, Alpine beat Aston Martin to victory.
McLaren missed out because Norris was wiped out in the same incident that took out the Red Bulls and seconds later Ricciardo picked up substantial damage in a clash caused by Lance Stroll.
McLaren has been ‘best of the rest’ since 2019 but it was never the best on the rare days a win drought stretching back to 2012 could be ended.
Esteban Ocon’s win in Budapest before the summer break continued a lingering injustice for McLaren which, despite being the non-Mercedes/Red Bull team that deserved its day in the sun the most, kept missing out through no real fault of its own.
No longer. Ricciardo’s stunning victory at Monza, heading a McLaren 1-2 no less, was vindication of its impressive progress in recent seasons and reward for its consistently strong performances.
McLaren boss Andreas Seidl said: “It’s important to celebrate these moments because they don’t come that often at the moment for a team like us still being on the up and still having a lot of work ahead of us.
“I was very happy we could pull this off this weekend.”
After Ricciardo’s win, McLaren CEO Zak Brown joked to The Race that “we figured out that our team didn’t start with an A, that was the problem!” – in reference to Alpine, what’s now Aston Martin and AlphaTauri having taken the underdog wins.
More seriously, he added: “What feels good is we earned this one.”
And then he repeated those key words: “We earned this one.”
That’s not to begrudge the other three surprise winners of 2020/21 any of their triumphs or to discredit their successes. When the stars aligned, those teams took advantage.
Seidl even said it was “not frustrating to see the other guys winning because in the end, if you win the race, you deserve it”.
What Brown meant by McLaren having “earned this one” is that both cars were there from the front. Yes, title rivals Hamilton and Verstappen took each other out. But that crash happened behind Ricciardo and Norris. They were already first and second.
McLaren wasn’t handed this race. McLaren won it. Norris and Ricciardo qualified fourth and fifth but were a whisker away from the front row. Picking soft tyres for the sprint race on Saturday, aligned with a rubbish start from Hamilton, launched Ricciardo to third. That became a front-row start when Bottas had to take his grid penalty for changing various engine components.
This was, in all fairness, a lucky break as Bottas was on great form at Monza. But McLaren still faced the championship leader starting on pole and much to do.
When Ricciardo took the lead at the start though, McLaren’s destiny was in its hands. When it became clear Verstappen could do nothing to pass Ricciardo, McLaren’s victory chances steadily increased. And when Red Bull botched Verstappen’s pitstop and allowed Norris to jump him, McLaren’s control of the race tightened.
After watching so many others get the chance to win a grand prix, it was extra satisfying for McLaren to sweep to its own triumph totally on merit – in Ricciardo’s words, it can take “so much fulfilment” from this victory.
“That makes it feel worth it,” said Ricciardo.
“I know last year Carlos finished second and second was huge for the team but there was kind of frustration because a few more laps we would have a chance to win, so the team probably held on to a bit of that.
“Then to come here a year later and get a one-two it’s unreal.”
Norris added: “A lot of times you’ve seen other people win, it’s because of a bit of luck here and there.
“But all weekend we’ve just done a very good job. We were in the right place at the right times, we’ve done a good job of the strategies. We put ourselves in this better position. We had a fast car and we maximised everything we had.
“I don’t think there was any luck with what we did this weekend.
“I’m sure many people will think we’re lucky because the other two crashed. But Daniel was ahead from the beginning and led the race.”
If at any previous point during its revival in recent years McLaren had benefited from fortunate circumstances to score a victory, it would still have been merited in some way.
The team’s rate of improvement and the increasing consistency with which it has bested its rivals in F1’s tight midfield has established McLaren as the clearest threat to the championship’s dominant forces.
Yet it had to sit and watch other teams – lesser teams, in performance terms – grab victories on the days when Mercedes and Red Bull were out of the picture.
That injustice ended at Monza in 2021. And the sweetest part is McLaren didn’t even need Mercedes and Red Bull to be out of the picture to do it.
Like Ricciardo said: “We earned every bit of it.”