McLaren's Norris: Anyone writing off Verstappen 'a bit stupid'

IMOLA, Italy -- Lando Norris never doubted Max Verstappen was the man to beat in qualifying for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, despite the world champion's scruffy start to the weekend.

Verstappen had looked out of sorts throughout practice at Imola, with several off-track moments, but recovered on Saturday to claim a record-tying eighth straight pole position.

Oscar Piastri and teammate Norris, the winner of the Miami Grand Prix two weeks ago, took the fight to Verstappen in their McLarens but fell just short.

Although Verstappen's assessment that McLaren has closed the gap appears to be true at Imola's circuit, Norris said he never doubted Verstappen had suddenly dropped back.

"I know Max hasn't had the smoothest weekend but I think if anyone doubting Red Bull or him coming back and doing a good job in qualifying, they're a bit stupid," Norris said, having secured third on the grid.

"I really expected him to be back on track, annoying to miss out to him once again in qualifying. But we're close and I think we're happy as a team. We've all performed. If we can continue and have strong race pace like we had yesterday and like we had in Miami I think we can have a good race."

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Verstappen has been very comfortable for most of the races in recent memory, winning 21 of the 24 races since last May.

Asked if he preferred a closer fight, Verstappen laughed and said: "I mean, I would rather qualify eight-tenths ahead, but that's not possible.

"It is very enjoyable when you had a turnaround like we had. I was really excited in qualifying and really happy when I heard we were on pole. So yeah, it was great we were on pole and that we had to really had to fight for it."

Given the difficulties encountered in the three hours of track time before qualifying Verstappen said his lap felt very special.

He added: "In the last couple years is definitely one of the best I would say. Because it's been a while that I felt like we've been that far off. I mean, Singapore [last year], we were off the whole weekend, so that was just a terrible weekend. But here we were also quite far off and then we managed to turn it around. So it must be at least five, six years, I don't really remember being able to turn it around like that.

He said the car had still not felt right in final practice on Saturday.

"We kept on working," Verstappen said. "Even this morning, it was not good. Just kept on trying to improve the balance of the car, because it was shifting a bit all over the place yesterday and this morning.

"I honestly went into qualifying like 'if we could get top five, I would be happy because this weekend has been really difficult'. There was really no reference going into qualifying."