Piastri took his second grand prix podium in F1 by finishing 4.5s behind the Dutchman at Losail, with Norris crossing the line in third just one second behind his team-mate.
Due to concerns over potential tyre failures, stint lengths were reduced to a maximum of 18 laps on a single set of tyres, effectively mandating three-stops in the 57-lap race.
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McLaren was tipped to excel on the high downforce track and its one-lap pace indeed appeared genuine, as evidenced by Piastri winning Saturday’s 19-lap sprint from pole.
But according to team boss Andrea Stella, the McLarens managed to stick closer to Verstappen over a full grand prix distance because Red Bull wasn’t fully able to flex its muscle.
“I think first of all the leader’s strategy is a little sub-optimal from a race time point of view, because it is the safest strategy when you add in the margin,” Stella said.
“It protects you from a late safety car, so there is a flattering element in the fact that they were on a strategy that loses time.
“Secondly, I am not sure how much they were pushing. I was certainly perceiving that maybe Max didn’t have so much in hand like he had other times.”
Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, leaves his pit box after a stop
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
While the curtailed stints may have also prevented Red Bull from exploiting its superior tyre management, Stella felt that McLaren also enjoyed improved tyre degradation, even if the underlying reasons are not fully clear yet.
“This was a decently flat-out race, because the duration of the stint first of all was prescribed in its maximum duration. Then, the medium and the hard tyres were actually behaving in a sensible way, so they were allowing the drivers to push.
“I was expecting at some stage of Friday, after we saw how the tyres were behaving, that this would have been a race of controlling the tyres. Instead, for us at least it was a race of pushing and this is encouraging.
“We will see the next races whether this is because we have improved the car, and it allows us to be more gentle on the tyres and therefore have better degradation or whether it’s simply the circumstances associated with this event.”
Stella cautioned that McLaren’s form itself may also have been an outlier, while noting that Mercedes to be appeared on par.
George Russell finished fourth despite a clash with team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the start which dropped him to the back, and the Briton felt he was “on pace, if not faster, than McLaren”.
“Mercedes were not far at all,” Stella acknowledged. “George was very strong in terms of race pace and it is a pity for them that they lost all the time at the start, and they had that unfortunate situation. Otherwise, they would’ve been there with us, I think.
“This track is a very suitable track for our car, so I wouldn’t expect for the coming races that this is necessarily the pecking order.”