Verstappen holds off Norris charge for Imola win

Max Verstappen leads at Imola from Lando Norris
Max Verstappen won by less than a second from Lando Norris [Getty Images]

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen held off a late charge from McLaren’s Lando Norris to win the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

The Dutchman, despite struggling with his tyres in the final part of the race, took his fifth victory in seven races this year to further his stranglehold on a fourth world title.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc comfortably beat McLaren’s Oscar Piastri for the final podium place to move into second in the championship, ahead of Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez.

Norris went into the final three laps just 1.3 seconds behind Verstappen, but was not quite close enough to have the DRS overtaking aid on the final lap, and the world champion hung on.

The Briton's efforts enlivened the final laps of what had been a largely soporific race, in which the only position change in the top five was Piastri moving past the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz with an earlier pit stop, after challenging the Spaniard closely throughout the first stint.

A valiant effort - but not enough

McLaren, for whom Norris won the previous event in Miami, had entered the race with hopes that they might challenge Verstappen, if the race pace the two cars had shown in Friday practice was duplicated in the race.

But in the early laps it appeared as if Verstappen would dominate with ease.

He retained the lead at the start while Norris fended off an attack from Leclerc into the first chicane, and it soon became clear that the improvements Red Bull had made to the car to enable Verstappen to take pole position had also been effective in race trim.

Verstappen eased gently away from Norris at about 0.2secs or so a lap until he was eight seconds in front when he made his pit stop on lap 23 of 63.

Verstappen looked comfortable in the first stint, but there was an indication even before coming under late pressure that his day was not as easy in the car as it appeared to be from outside when he was given the black and white flag for exceeding track limits too many times shortly after his pit stop.

He appeared to be stroking to victory. But, as the race entered its final third, the pattern changed.

Initially, Norris was under pressure himself, from Leclerc, who was with within a second of the McLaren and in range to use the DRS overtaking aid with 20 laps to go.

McLaren came on the radio to warn Norris that Leclerc was speeding up and “trying”. “Me, too,” Norris replied. “I’m trying, but he’s just a lot quicker.”

But then Norris began to ease away from the Ferrari and close Verstappen down.

Initially eight seconds back, Norris had the gap down to five seconds with 10 laps to go, while Verstappen was complaining that “my tyres don’t work”.

Norris closed in consistently but Verstappen had just enough pace to keep him at arm’s length.

“The whole race I had to push to the limit,” Verstappen said. “On the medium tyre we were quite strong, but on the hard tyre we struggled and it's very difficult when you have to push flat out and the tyres are not working any more.”

Norris said: “It hurts me to say it, but one or two more laps and I think I would have had him. Tough. Just lost out too much to Max in the beginning. He was stronger in the first stint.

“We are at a point now where we can say we are in the position with Ferrari and Red Bull. We have to get used to it. We are fighting for first and second now.

“It is still a surprise to say we are disappointed not to win, but it is what we should start to expect.”

Behind the top three

In the second part of the race, Piastri initially challenged Leclerc in the laps after the pit stops, but the Ferrari soon began to ease away and inch towards Norris.

Once Piastri had passed him, Sainz had a lonely race to fifth place, not able to keep pace with the top four, but comfortably ahead of the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.

It was another anonymous weekend for the team that dominated F1 in the last decade, and Hamilton did not help his chances by running into the gravel at Acque Minerali mid-race.

Despite that misadventure, Hamilton was more than capable of maintaining his advantage in the final laps over Perez, who was on an inverted tyre strategy from his lowly 11th place on the grid.

Perez started on the hard tyres and ran on a long first stint, in the middle of which he, too, ran into the gravel, this time at Rivazza, and then switched to the medium, when all those in front started on the mediums.

Despite his tyre advantage into the second stint and the fact that he was driving a Red Bull, Perez was barely any quicker than the Mercedes in front of him.

Russell had spent most of the race in front of Hamilton, but their positions were inverted when Russell made a stop for fresh tyres with 10 laps to go.

RB’s Yuki Tsunoda, so impressive in qualifying seventh, and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll took the final points positions in ninth and 10th.

Sebastian Vettel driving Ayrton Senna's 1993 McLaren at Imola
Sebastian Vettel drove Ayrton Senna's 1993 McLaren before the race as a tribute to the Brazilian three-time world champion, who died in an accident at Imola 30 years ago [Getty Images]
A close-up side image of Sebastian Vettel driving Ayrton senna's 1993 McLaren while wearing a helmet with the Senna yellow, green and blue design
Vettel's helmet had the Senna design on one half and his own on the other side [Getty Images]