How Norris forced Verstappen to fight for Imola victory

IMOLA, Italy -- For the first time in a long while, Max Verstappen had to dig deep for a Formula One race victory on Sunday, courtesy of Lando Norris and McLaren.

Verstappen's final victory margin of 0.7 seconds over Norris at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix was a world away from any of the four easy wins he had claimed this year and a sizeable chunk of his record 19 victories in 2023.

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- Max Verstappen holds off Lando Norris to win by 0.7sec at Imola

"F---ing hell, mate. Had to work for that," Verstappen said over his car radio after taking the chequered flag.

He wasn't wrong. Norris, fresh off the heels of an overdue first F1 win in Miami two weeks earlier, catapulted himself into victory contention with a thrilling charge late on, which fell agonisingly short of making it two in a row.

"I was just praying for one more lap," Norris said later.

The Englishman was content with second, but there was a real feeling of what might have been had Norris been given one chance to attack Verstappen down Imola's long pit straight with his Drag Reduction System (DRS) wide open, which would have been the case as he was within one second of the Red Bull driver when they crossed the line.

"At least he would have had to defend into Turn 1, and maybe something could have come from that, but one lap too late," Norris added. "It's a shame, but it is what it is, and we just struggled too much in the beginning of the race."

On paper, the weekend still featured a Verstappen pole position (a record-tying eighth in a row) and a fifth win from seven this year, but the Red Bull driver looked to be on the ropes throughout the event, starting with an uncharacteristically sloppy set of practice sessions on Friday which saw him run off the circuit on multiple occasions.

The Red Bull -- or at least the one being driven by the championship leader -- still appears to be the car to beat at the moment, but Imola provided fans with tangible proof that Verstappen and his runaway team can be challenged on pure pace. Norris' win in Miami and his supreme display on Sunday in Imola have changed the whole temperature of the season. Verstappen may still hold a 28-point lead in the championship and a 60-point buffer over Norris, but there was a feeling leaving Italy's first race of the year that his days of cantering away to victory might be behind us.

"Well Stefano [Domenicali, F1 CEO] has been asking us for weeks to try and make it closer at the end," Red Bull boss Christian Horner would joke later that evening.

Several factors came together to set up Sunday's grandstand finish.

Two were on Verstappen's side. The Dutchman's three track limits transgressions represented an anomaly at a circuit where gravel lines the outside of most corners -- the FIA still enforces track limits (i.e., going over the white lines on the edges of the track) in places to ensure consistency. Those violations, caused by the understeer he was suffering from earlier in the race, saw Verstappen given the black-and-white flag, denoting he was one more adventure across the white lines away from a five-second penalty.

With Norris keeping Verstappen's lead around the six-second mark for much of the race, the prospect of a penalty throwing things wide open was tantalising. Another factor then came in Verstappen's second stint. He struggled once he swapped the medium Pirelli for the hard compound at his one and only pit stop and likened the experience he felt late on to driving on ice.

"As soon as I swapped to the hard tyres ... maybe not the first five to 10 laps, but after that I was like, I'm not sure I can bring this to the end," Verstappen said. He added that his car got so loose at a point through Turn 7 he "almost ended up in the grandstand."

This lack of grip, coupled with the fact that Verstappen was also driving carefully to avoid a penalty, put him into a supremely defensive position. And exactly as the Red Bull driver's tyres were getting away from him, Norris' were coming alive. That was not by some fluke, either. For the second race in a row, we were shown a glimpse of Norris' supreme race craft.

As he had in Miami, the British driver masterfully nursed his tyres when he needed to in order to attack later in the race. While his reward for doing so in Florida was a perfectly timed safety car, there was no fortune about his charge on Sunday -- he had put his car right where he needed it to be.

And yet his electric pace still seemed to come out of the blue. A couple of laps before Norris started hacking away at Verstappen's lead, a radio message had suggested he was concerned with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc behind.

"I had to just manage things as best I could," Norris said about the laps in which he was monitoring the red car behind him. "And when I say I'm pushing, it doesn't mean you're 110%. Pushing can still be 90%. You're just pushing to the limit of what you want to do. But I basically changed all my switches on the steering wheel to try and help the rear tyres and try to kill the fronts, because I just had too much front at that point. And maybe five, 10 laps later, things started to come back to me.

"So making all these changes and changing the differential and the brake balance and all of those things really allowed me to kind of bring the tyres back into a good window. As soon as I got there, I felt confident enough to push. And as soon as I felt like I could push, it kind of spiralled in the right direction."

A mistake from Leclerc would give Norris the breathing room he needed to turn his attention in the other direction. With Verstappen contending with dying tyres and the threat of a penalty, suddenly the prospect of the papaya McLaren catching up to him felt very real in the cockpit of the No. 1 car.

"Just very difficult, really weird lines that I had to take," Verstappen said, explaining the final portion of his race. "Those last 10 laps you know I was really trying to survive with the tyres and then suddenly Lando really picked up pace.

"So yeah, I could see him, of course, catch up. I was not sure if I could keep him behind, but I was just trying to do the best I could, pushing as hard as I could with the grip that I had. And yeah, luckily, it was just enough laps."

The end of the race was a perfect showcase of two great drivers at their best.

Verstappen, to his credit, managed to keep his car out of the grandstands and did exactly what he needed to do to win the race. Norris' display, built around patience and his incredible feel for when it's the right time to hold back and when it's the right time to attack, will only reinforce what is already known within his team and in the F1 paddock generally: McLaren has an absolute superstar on its hands.

Max the endurance man

"Two wins for you in a day, I think," was the quip from Horner to his star driver after the tense finish to the race.

It was a reference to something else which gained a lot of attention this week: Verstappen's decision to pull double duty between his F1 commitments and a 24-hour virtual race with Team Redline, his esports outfit. His team ended up winning the Nurburgring 24 Hours sim race by over 30 seconds.

Clips went viral of Verstappen competing in the race in the hours after qualifying on Saturday evening and the hours before the race on Saturday morning. The world champion reckoned he had finished his final stint at 10:15 a.m., just shy of five hours before the start of the Imola race.

"I'm very happy with that result as well," a grinning Verstappen said in the Imola news conference.

Asked whether he had pulled an all-nighter, Verstappen joked: "I need to sleep as well."

Norris and Verstappen have competed the Virtual 24 Hours of Spa together, but it's unlikely we'll see the McLaren driver copy the Dutchman's lead anytime soon.

When asked by ESPN whether he'd ever considered doing an endurance sim race during an F1 race, Norris said: "I've just never tried, but I'd be up for it."

"I don't think it would have had the biggest toll," he added. "Otherwise, he probably wouldn't have done it. Yeah, so he didn't drive too late. He did a couple of stints. And he prepared for it and that kind of thing. But at least it's not a physical thing. It's more just mentally it can hurt you a bit. But I probably stayed up later than he did. What time do you sleep?"

To that, Verstappen revealed he too had watched the blockbuster heavyweight boxing fight between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, suggesting his earlier statement of needing sleep ahead of a big F1 race is up for debate.