Norris 'excited' that McLaren can take fight to Verstappen

Lando Norris on the podium at Imola
Lando Norris is fourth in the drivers' championship, 12 points behind second-placed Charles Leclerc [Getty Images]

McLaren driver Lando Norris says he is "excited" about the rest of the Formula 1 season after challenging Max Verstappen’s Red Bull hard for victory at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

The Briton finished just 0.7 seconds behind Verstappen, two weeks after taking his maiden F1 victory in the Miami Grand Prix.

Norris believes his performance at Imola demonstrates that he and McLaren have now established themselves as consistent challengers right at the front of the field.

The 24-year-old Briton said: "Hopefully, it continues like that because it's exciting, it's tough, and it gets you excited every weekend, so I'm looking forward to the next few."

Norris said there was "no reason to deny" that he and McLaren should be able to take the fight to Verstappen at most circuits from now on.

"We also had a second in China (the race before Miami), so we've had second, first, second, you know, and I think that’s a good sign," he said.

Norris’ team-mate Oscar Piastri added that McLaren should be "confident enough to say wherever we go, we can fight for a win".

So close, and yet so far

Norris acknowledged that the destiny of the race effectively turned on qualifying, when a tow for Verstappen appeared to have made the difference in the world champion beating the McLarens, who qualified second and third, with Piastri ahead.

Verstappen gained 0.1 seconds on the run to the first corner of his qualifying lap thanks to a slipstream from Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas.

He out-qualified Piastri by just 0.074secs, while the Australian was just 0.017secs quicker than Norris. Piastri started fifth because of a grid penalty for impeding Hulkenberg’s team-mate Kevin Magnussen, which McLaren said was down to an operational error by the team.

Norris said: "In quali, maybe you would have put us a bit ahead of them. You know, without Max's slipstream, we would have been ahead. And without Oscar's penalty, like, we would have had a one-two on the grid."

He acknowledged that Verstappen "had the best car" in the race, and the Dutchman used it to pull out an eight-second advantage before his pit stop.

But Verstappen struggled on the hard tyres on which the top teams ran their second stints. And after the gap was stable for 20 laps or so, while Norris looked after his tyres, in the final third of the race the McLaren began to reel the Red Bull in.

Norris reckoned that with another lap or two, he would have had a shot at trying to pass Verstappen for victory.

"For the team, it's very good," Norris said. "It gives them a good amount of confidence. We're on the right track. We're fighting against Ferraris and Red Bulls and that's the expectation now.

"This is where we are and this is what we have to do. So if we were anything worse than second today, I think we didn't do a good job and we would have been disappointed."

McLaren leapfrog Ferrari

McLaren’s uplift has coincided with a major aerodynamic upgrade that was fitted to Norris’ car in its entirety in Miami. Piastri, who had half the upgrade in Florida, had the full package in Imola.

It seemed to confirm McLaren as Red Bull’s closest challengers despite Ferrari, who finished third with Charles Leclerc, also having a major upgrade package.

Verstappen said: "You can see, of course, it's clearly very close now. I had a bit more pace on the medium (tyre), but then I didn't have that pace on the hard. And at the end of the day, we basically came over the line like we almost started the race. It was incredibly close."

Norris said McLaren had further progress to make before they could consistently beat Red Bull, but said he thought it might be possible at certain circuits even now.

"I don't think we're at their level just yet," Norris said. "As we saw today, they still have areas where they're better and maybe some areas where we are better now, which is a good sign.

"But yeah, I think there's going to be tracks where we can be stronger. I'm still looking forward to a couple of those tracks, but there's going to be some where we’re a little bit off still.

"So we're working on those places, and if we work and improve on them as much as we have the rest of the car, then I’m excited that we can definitely continue to fight them in more races."

That is likely a reference to races such as Austria and Silverstone, which are at the end of June and beginning of July. Before that, F1 goes to Monaco next weekend, followed by races in Canada and Spain.

However, it is one thing to challenge Verstappen and another to beat him. Imola was perhaps the Dutchman’s best race of the season.

It was not a track that played to the strengths of the Red Bull, and the team were struggling badly in Friday practice.

They made a big step forward thanks to some hard work by their reserve driver Sebastien Buemi in the simulator on Friday night, but Verstappen’s pole - apart from the tow - appeared to be more about driver than car. His team-mate Sergio Perez being down in 11th on the grid underlined this.

Crucially, Verstappen then won the start, which meant he could manage his own race and look after his tyres, while Norris overheated his behind the Red Bull and progressively dropped back.

Both men drove exquisitely, but Verstappen’s obvious delight and relief spoke volumes, while Norris was ruing what he realised was an opportunity missed not through any fault of his own, just by circumstances.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella said: "The pace Max had in the first stint on mediums was just superior to us.

"Red Bull had a very good car but today we also see the skills of the driver who won the race. We have proved we can be there and knock at the door of victories in a weekend when at some stage it looked like Ferrari had the fastest car and then Max appeared to. It was important we were there.

"Between a McLaren and a Red Bull today there wasn’t much to pick, and some other factors made the difference.

"Being in the clear air seemed to play a big factor. So, any time you had backmarkers you lost pace. And being ahead in the first corner you have the free air that allows you to manage the tyres in a certain way and manage your own pace.

"Max did a good job yesterday in being pole and first at the first corner and this paid off today in managing the tyres."

The overtaking issue

Carlos Sainz in front of Oscar Piastri during the Emiliano Romagna Grand Prix
McLaren's Oscar Piastri was unable to pass Carlos Sainz before the pit stops [Getty Images]

Could Norris have beaten Verstappen if the race had been a little longer. In reality, it’s unlikely. Overtaking was, as Norris put it before the race, "almost impossible" at Imola without a significant grip offset, as Piastri proved by spending the first stint stuck behind Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, despite a pace advantage.

Why was this? Imola is what is known as an old-school track, the challenge of which the drivers love.

But since it was changed on safety grounds following the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994 with the addition of chicanes at what were flat-out corners at Tamburello and Villeneuve, it has lacked any corners with a big braking zone before them. And big braking zones are needed for overtaking. In essence, the Tamburello chicane is too fast for it to be a decent passing place.

Making matters worse, governing body the FIA has shortened the zone in which drivers could use the DRS overtaking aid before Tamburello, making it all but impossible to make a challenge.

Some rethinking might be in order from the FIA and the circuit if next year’s race, the last of Imola’s current contract, is not going to fall prey to the same problem.