Win eludes Norris in Spain, but McLaren now F1's big threat

MONTMELÓ, Spain -- Just 24 hours after what he described as the best lap of his career, pole sitter Lando Norris saw the Spanish Grand Prix slip through his fingers in the opening moments of the race.

"I f---ed up the start," a downbeat Norris would tell McLaren immediately after finishing little more than two seconds behind Formula One world championship leader Max Verstappen. Norris' hard work from Saturday afternoon was undone in the 579-metre (633-yard) run down to Turn 1 at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Despite being aggressive off the line and forcing the eventual race winner on to the grass, Norris still found himself behind as they entered the first corner. Crucially, George Russell also found a way around both of them on the outside; while Verstappen got past Russell a few laps later, Norris would have to wait until the first round of pit stops to jump the Mercedes, a delay that served a decisive blow to his hopes of winning the race.

When asked to assess his race in the news conference after the race, Norris said his start was the only negative he could point to.

"Not good enough, simply because we should have won today," he said. "I think we had the quickest car, but I just lost it at the start, and then I couldn't get past George for the first stint. I think we quite easily had the best car out there today, I just didn't do a good enough job off the line, and then that one thing cost me everything.

"From Turn 2 onwards, 10 out of 10, I don't think I could have done much more and I think as a team, we did the perfect strategy. I was very happy with what we did, but yeah, the one part of the start, the 1 percent, wasn't good enough."

Spain 2024 might not be as dramatic as the other great "what might have been" moment of Norris' career, when McLaren's misjudgment of a late rain shower at the 2021 Russian Grand Prix cost him the win, but it will sting badly for a little while. It shouldn't take the papaya-hued team long to get over it, though.

That's because we now have enough evidence to suggest that Red Bull's huge performance gap from the start of 2024 has evaporated. McLaren look like a regular challenger now -- some might even suggest they've moved ahead -- while Mercedes built on the good work of Canada with a strong third and fourth with Lewis Hamilton and Russell.

Compared to the start of the season, when Verstappen looked entirely unstoppable, the energy around F1 has been different since Norris' maiden triumph at the Miami Grand Prix in early May. Nevertheless, Verstappen has still managed to increase his championship lead, which now stands at 69 points over Norris, who has climbed into second.

"Max isn't making any mistakes really, so as soon as you make one little mistake, they're going to be ahead," Norris said. Russell found that to be the case in Montreal two weeks ago.

Verstappen's lead is, in effect, a 2½-race buffer over Norris, and might look unassailable on paper, but a win for Norris on Sunday would have been a major statement about the remaining 14 races of the season and the real threat the McLaren MCL38 now poses to Red Bull's once untouchable RB20.

The recent change to the competitive order has clearly got Norris thinking about being an outside bet in the championship, but he knows it can only happen if he cuts out the mistakes -- however small they may be.

Asked if he can challenge for the title, Norris said: "I mean, I think so, I think ... I should have done better today. We should have got some points back on Max. Potentially there was a chance to beat him in Canada, so two races that I finished second and he's won. But Max needs to stop winning in order to achieve that.

"Even though I've moved into second in the championship, that doesn't matter, I couldn't care if I was second or tenth. It's more about the gap to what Max is, and he's still extending it.

"That's something that we can't afford to do or can't afford to let him run away with it at this point of the season. ... If I just made some better decisions in Canada, and if I had a better start today, we would have won two races. I know there's always been a lot of shoulda, woulda, couldas, but we have what it takes. It's just about putting it all together."

Norris has always been incredibly hard on himself in tough moments, and listening to him on Sunday evening, it was easy to briefly forget he had finished second. That just shows you just how quickly the mood and expectation has shifted at McLaren.

Team boss Andreas Stella said Norris' downbeat reaction to finishing second should be music to the ears of F1 fans wanting to see a genuine fight this year.

"You know the fact Lando is self critical, and sometimes we react very much on the self rather than the content of things," Stella said. "We don't overreact to the style of Lando being tough on himself, certainly I'm sure this is something he will keep fine tuning over the years. But from Lando's point of view, he drove very well the entire weekend, and if he is upset for a P2, finishing two seconds from Max, then this is really good news for everyone, including Formula One, as it means we have races and with little details, like defending your pole position, we can have different winners than Max."

Verstappen keeps getting the job done

There is, of course, a reason why Verstappen has such a healthy championship lead. A hallmark of great champions across any sport is the ability to claim wins when not performing at the best. While his first four victories of 2024 were as routine as they come, there's an argument to be made that Verstappen's past three wins have come when he's not had the fastest car.

At Imola, Norris finished 0.2 seconds behind Verstappen but was faster for much of the race. Mistakes from Russell and a safety car when Norris had a healthy lead then helped Verstappen claim victory at the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago. This time around it was Norris' sluggish getaway that swung the pendulum the Red Bull driver's way.

On all three occasions, Verstappen has made his rivals pay for being less than perfect. The three-time world champion continues to deliver, and the high bar he sets every week is easy to overlook when a driver is winning as often as he has been, including in his record-shattering 2023 season.

"He's always been fantastic under pressure," Red Bull boss Christian Horner said on Sunday evening. "Last year was a unicorn year and now it's a more normal year, it's not normal to win all the races all the time and we're having to fight very very hard for them, and Max is making a key difference. We know where we need to improve, we're getting a better understanding of where our strengths and weaknesses are, and we're doing enough at the moment to keep growing that championship lead."

Verstappen also knows the routine wins of early 2024 are a thing of the past. On Sunday, he urged Red Bull to step up its game to match the new threat of Norris' McLaren team if it wants to keep adding to the points gap.

"I always knew it was going to be close and McLaren is just doing a really good job," Verstappen said. "They have brought a lot of good updates to their car and it really just seems to work.

"From our side, we have brought things to the car but probably not as much lap time as what others have been bringing to their car. So now it's up to us to find a bit more, try to get that little jump ahead again because I think clearly today we lacked a bit that outright pace. When we had to push we just couldn't look after the tyres like Lando could. These little things are quite crucial at tracks where you have quite a bit of [tyre degradation] so we need to be a bit better at that."

Norris will have an immediate chance to make amends. Spain was the first leg of a tripleheader over three consecutive weekends, with Red Bull's home race in Austria followed by the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.