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F1 Review: Max Verstappen Survives Lando Norris Offensive to Win Emilia Romagna GP

Max Verstappen started on the pole at Imola and dominated early, and held off the inspired final laps charge of Lando Norris to win the MSC Cruises Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday (May 19th) at Imola. Verstappen’s pole was his eighth straight, matching the record of the late Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash at Imola 30 years ago. Norris turned what looked like an easy Verstappen win into a dramatic chase, but came up short of his second straight win by less than a second. 

“The whole race I had to push flat-out to try and make a gap initially,” Verstappen said. “I think on the medium tires we were quite strong; on the hard tire it was just a bit more difficult to manage.

“In the last stint, the last 15 laps I had no more grip, I was sliding a lot … I couldn’t afford to make too many mistakes. Luckily we didn’t. I’m super happy to win here today.”

Charles Leclerc delighted the Tifosi by taking the final podium spot, while Oscar Piastri overcame a grid penalty that knocked him off the front row to take fourth. Carlos Sainz was fifth, followed by the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell in sixth and seventh, respectively, with Russell grabbing an extra point for fastest lap. Sergio Perez, handicapped by missing Q3 on Saturday, finished eighth after starting 11th. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll made Daddy proud by taking ninth from his starting position of 13th, and Yuki Tsunoda took the final points paying spot, giving the Visa Cash App RB driver his second straight race with a points finish.

In the drivers’ standings, Verstappen now leads Perez by 33 points, 136 to 103. Leclerc is third with 98, 15 ahead of Norris and Sainz. Sixty-four of Norris’ 83 points have come in the last three races.

In the constructors’ standings, Red Bull leads Ferrari 268 to 212, with McLaren in third with 154, 75 ahead of Mercedes in fourth.

The Race

Verstappen screamed off the line at lights out, well aware of the importance of a good start, and held Norris at bay into turn 1. The world champion took the clean air and ran with it, hoping for smooth sailing — in other words, a race without a safety car, or any similar incident that would open the door for his rivals to beat him.

Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg picked off Tsunoda, who started seventh, while Pierre Gasly set a fastest lap, currently the highlight of Alpine’s season.

Norris displayed the pace early to stay close to Verstappen, trailing for the early laps just outside of DRS range while also keeping a healthy margin over the Ferraris of Leclerc and Sainz in third and fourth, respectively. 

Verstappen built the lead to two seconds by lap 6 and while Norris wasn’t quite in striking distance, he wasn’t letting Verstappen run away with the lead. Piastri, running fifth, was hot on the gear box of Sainz, looking to overtake the Ferrari for fourth. Sainz, in a Ferrari radio transmission, was impressed with the McLaren’s pace. 

Disaster struck early for the Williams team when Alexander Albon was slow leaving the pits after a stop on lap 9. Albon slowly made his way around back to the pits and emerged a lap down and out of contention. The issue was a loose wheel, and for Albon, it’s certainly not what you want to see on your first live race pit stop after signing an extension with the team until 2027. Albon was later hit with a 10-second penalty for an unsafe release, and finally retired 12 laps from the end.

Things weren’t great for Fernando Alonso either, whose brakes were in flames as he left the pits. Luckily some cool, clean air remedied the situation, it didn’t bode well for the already disadvantaged Aston Martin, which started from the pit lane.

By lap 15, Verstappen’s lead was approaching five seconds, and as the Red Bull faded in the distance ahead of Norris, so apparently were Norris’ chances of a win. Verstappen and Red Bull were in total control early and in position to react to any strategy move made by Zak Brown and McLaren. Barring mechanical trouble for Verstappen, or a miracle safety car situation, Norris’ race looked to be just maintaining second and the podium. But that was so not the case for the up and coming superstar.

Norris pitted on lap 23 for hard tires and unfortunately came out behind Perez, whose job and Verstappen’s wingman was now to hold Norris up. Perez upheld his well-earned reputation as a subpar wingman by allowing Norris to pass just a lap later. 

Verstappen dove in for hard tires on lap 25 and emerged in fourth, well ahead of Norris. Leclerc came in a lap later and a decent stop brought the Ferrari out in sixth, behind Norris and Perez. 

Sainz relinquished the lead on lap 28 for a set of hard tires and came out in sixth. Not the best outcome for Ferrari, as Sainz lost track position to Piastri, and now had to overtake Perez to get himself back in the podium hunt. Sainz quickly dispatched Perez, and was now six seconds behind Paistri.

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Verstappen assumed the lead, and on lap 30 and the gap was a comfortable six seconds over Norris. Leclerc was in third with Piastri changing hard, setting a number of fastest laps. While the battle for the win was currently not looking very competitive, the battle for the final podium spot was shaping up to be just that.

Perez finally pitted for medium tires after running 37 laps on a set of hards. Perez returned to the track in 11th, with all 10 cars in front of him on hard tires. Perez quickly disposed of Daniel Ricciardo in 10th, then snatched ninth from Hulkenberg, and the Red Bull was in the points and looking for more.

Up front, Verstappen’s margin was seven seconds on Norris, with Leclerc just two seconds behind Norris and closing. McLaren urged Norris to go faster, in hopes that Norris had preserved more of his tires than Leclerc had in his push to catch the McLaren. Leclerc was in DRS range by lap 43, and Norris was showing increasing concern about his pace.

The order on lap 45 was Verstappen, Norris, Leclerc, Piastri, Sainz, Russell, Hamilton, Perez, Tsunoda and Hulkenberg.

Norris withstood Leclerc’s charge, and by lap 49, had increased his lead to over two seconds over the Ferrari. Norris could breathe a sigh of relief, but still couldn’t sniff a whiff of Verstappen’s exhaust, who was nearly six seconds up the track and in cruise control.

However, Verstappen complained that his tires “don’t work” on lap 52 as Norris slowly chipped into the Dutchman’s lead. When McLaren relayed this information to Norris, Norris seemed to blow it off as if to say “This is just Max sandbagging.” 

But Norris continued to attack and with eight laps to go, he had the margin down to less than three seconds. It was clear the McLaren had the pace; did it have the tires? 

The margin was under two seconds with five to go, and the tension was mounting. It’s not often we see Verstappen struggle to maintain a lead, especially in the closing stages of a race. But Verstappen showed the grit and experience of a champion, maintaining enough of a gap to keep Norris out of DRS range, and forcing Norris to use every bit of his tires.

Norris kept coming, though, and was in DRS range late in the final lap, but Verstappen held on to win his third consecutive win at Imola and 59th career win.

The Good

I think everyone can agree that in the era of Verstappen dominance, it’s nice to see a race margin of victory measured with a stopwatch, as opposed to, say, a sundial. I guess this is a McLaren appreciation statement, because they are the team that has successfully mounted a challenge to the Red Bull juggernaut. While Mercedes and Ferrari have been running in place for two or so years, McLaren has made the commitment, in the factory and with their drivers, to do what it takes to be competitive next to Red Bull.

And Norris did something at Imola that few, if any, have done in the last three years: he made Verstappen nervous. When Max gets nervous or worried, he starts complaining about his car. At Imola, in the closing laps, we heard him complain about his tires and his battery.

Norris may not quite be in Verstappen’s league, but he’s definitely in his head.

Does all this mean there is actually a Verstappen-Norris rivalry? Maybe, but it’s only in its infancy. The world championship is Verstappen’s this year; next year won’t be as easy, if McLaren keeps advancing. Of course, that’s assuming Red Bull makes no improvements, which is a foolish assumption. But if Norris continues to challenge Verstappen, and there happens to be a few on-track incidents that result in one or both being knocked out of a race or races, then that rivalry could brew.

Verstappen and Norris are good friends now, but for the sake of F1, let’s hope they establish a beef that will one day rival that of Kendrick Lamar and Drake. If there’s one thing F1 needs right now, it’s diss tracks.  

The Bad

It was a rough day for Williams. And things went downhill from the start: during an early pit stop, the team failed to secure a tire properly on Albon’s car. Albon was released from the pits, but immediately knew something was not right, and slowly made his way around the circuit (kind of like Logan Sargeant does when his tires are on correctly), returning to the pits. Albon fell a lap down, and was later investigated by stewards to determine whether the team knew his car wasn’t safe to return to racing after the initial pit stop. 

Albon was later penalized with a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, and eventually retired 12 laps from the end. His teammate Sargeant finished 17th, one lap down. Sergeant’s future with the team seems precarious at best. As they say, Sargeant’s future’s so bright, he’s gotta wear an F2 reserve driver’s shades next season.   

Has Mercedes resigned to being the fourth-best team on the grid? The team can’t challenge for wins; it seems they can’t even challenge for the podium now. I guess there was a time in history when finishing sixth was satisfactory for Hamilton. I can’t blame Hamilton for flying the coop for Ferrari: he’s going to sell so much Ferrari-branded merchandise, but still will likely be playing third fiddle to Red Bull and McLaren. “Fast enough” appears to be the operative phrase for Hamilton, as in he can’t go fast enough in a Mercedes, and can’t get to Ferrari fast enough.

If you were looking for insight into what it feels like to be a Ferrari driver at Imola, don’t ask Eddie Irvine, who was asked that very question on the grid by Sky Sports announcers before the race. Even though he was and has, Irvine answered as though he’d never driven a Ferrari at Imola, ever. You could have expected a better answer had Martin Brundle asked Machine Gun Kelly that very same question. Irvine was close to being a world champion. To be clear, it was in the discipline of driving, and not the discipline of giving articulate answers.

The Disappointing

Piastri was demoted from his second-place grid position to fifth after he was penalized for impeding Kevin Magnussen in Q1 on Saturday. This is quite the turnabout for Magnussen, because he’s usually the driver in your way, not the other way around. 

It’s disappointing because it would have been interesting to see this race play out with both McLaren’s possibly challenging for the win. Would the outcome have been any different? Could Piastri, starting second, have been able to get close to Verstappen? Would McLaren team orders have come into play? If so, how would Piastri have reacted to being told to let Norris through, and would he have let Norris through? Would Piastri have reacted to being told “You’re No. 2” by saying “No, that’s No. 2?”   

We all know what a “Grid Walk” looks like without Martin Brundle, it’s boring. Now we know what one looks like when you don’t have the proper credentials to be on the grid: you get strong-armed and put back in your place. 

Martin, if you’re out there listening, please bring your “Grid Walk” to Monaco next week. A-list celebrities need A-list F1 commentators to ask A-list questions to which many will give D-list answers.

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The Driver

Norris backed up his win in the Miami Grand Prix with a performance at Imola that solidified his position as a legitimate challenger to Verstappen. While Verstappen’s Red Bull was superior, Norris deployed a combination of performance, patience, tire management, and pure talent to nearly steal the win from the Red Bull driver. F1 needs for Verstappen to have a foil; Norris could be that foil. The 24-year-old Norris is a lot like Verstappen when he was 24, except Norris is likable.  

The Results

MSC Cruises Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola, San Marino (May 20, 2024)

POSNODRIVERCARLAPSTIME/RETIREDPTS
11Max VerstappenRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT631:25:25.25225
24Lando NorrisMCLAREN MERCEDES63+0.725s18
316Charles LeclercFERRARI63+7.916s15
481Oscar PiastriMCLAREN MERCEDES63+14.132s12
555Carlos SainzFERRARI63+22.325s10
644Lewis HamiltonMERCEDES63+35.104s8
763George RussellMERCEDES63+47.154s7
811Sergio PerezRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT63+54.776s4
918Lance StrollASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES63+79.556s2
1022Yuki TsunodaRB HONDA RBPT62+1 lap1
1127Nico HulkenbergHAAS FERRARI62+1 lap0
1220Kevin MagnussenHAAS FERRARI62+1 lap0
133Daniel RicciardoRB HONDA RBPT62+1 lap0
1431Esteban OconALPINE RENAULT62+1 lap0
1524Zhou GuanyuKICK SAUBER FERRARI62+1 lap0
1610Pierre GaslyALPINE RENAULT62+1 lap0
172Logan SargeantWILLIAMS MERCEDES62+1 lap0
1877Valtteri BottasKICK SAUBER FERRARI62+1 lap0
1914Fernando AlonsoASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES62+1 lap0
NC23Alexander AlbonWILLIAMS MERCEDES51DNF0
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