How close is Norris from taking F1 title fight to Verstappen?

Formula One races are being decided by increasingly small margins this season. The performance between the top few cars has been so close that single factors -- such as race starts, safety cars and tiny mistakes in qualifying -- are enough to decide races.

In contrast to the past two seasons of F1, Max Verstappen can no longer rely on the performance of his Red Bull to cruise to victory by more than 10 seconds. Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren have all closed the gap in performance, and at the past three races in Monaco, Canada and Spain have each had the fastest car, respectively.

That makes it all the more impressive that Verstappen has still won three of the past four grands prix this season, including another hard-earned victory at Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix.

When Lando Norris was asked if he could have won in Spain, he answered: "Not could, should have done. I got a bad start, simple as that. The car was incredible today. I think we were, for sure, the quickest. I just lost it in the beginning."

Verstappen's consistency over the past four races has seen him extend his championship lead to 69 points over Norris, but If you add up all of the McLaren driver's could have moments from those same events, the gap in the championship could be as small as 21.

Given how competitive McLaren has been at recent races, a 21-point gap would seem entirely assailable for Norris with 14 rounds remaining. By contrast, however, a 69-point deficit, with Verstappen driving on his current form, seems like a number too large to overhaul.

Details of Norris' missed opportunities will follow below, but it is important at this stage to state that this is not a dig at the McLaren driver. Yes, he could have scored more points, but the very fact that he is regularly challenging for victories shows just how far he and McLaren have come since this point last year.

Viewed more fairly, the past four races have been a tale of just how good Verstappen has been. Picking fault in the reigning champion's performances this year is nearly impossible; the reason his championship lead looks so strong is because there are no signs of weakness.

So rather than reading this as a series of errors or what-might-have-beens on Norris' behalf, it should act as a reminder of why Verstappen deserves every last bit of praise he receives.

An alternative reality

The first sign that Red Bull's performance advantage was diminishing came in Miami with Norris' first F1 victory. Although the McLaren driver took the lead thanks to the timing of a safety car, it became clear thereafter that he had a genuine pace advantage over Verstappen.

How much of that was down to damage to Verstappen's car was less clear at the time, but as the next four races unfolded, the benefits of McLaren's performance upgrades became more obvious ...

Points gap between Verstappen and Norris after Miami: 53


At the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Verstappen secured his ninth pole position in a row, but the margin was noticeably smaller than he had become accustomed to. The fastest of the two McLaren drivers, Oscar Piastri, was just 0.074 seconds off the Red Bull, with Norris 0.091s off Verstappen in third. Piastri later dropped to fifth on the grid for impeding another driver during qualifying -- a factor that helped relieve some of the pressure from Verstappen in the race -- but that didn't detract from the step made in raw performance by both drivers.

Verstappen appeared to be cruising to a victory in the first half of the race, but Norris came alive in the final 20 laps when tyre management became the key factor. The gap between the two narrowed to as little as 0.7s as they crossed the line, with the McLaren driver convinced he would have overtaken the Red Bull if there had been an extra lap. Meanwhile, Verstappen had been just one track-limits violation away from a five-second penalty for the entirety of the battle, heaping extra pressure on him in the final laps as he kept Norris behind.

It would be harsh to say Norris lost the victory in Imola, but against a more fragile opponent, a victory could have been on the cards.

Actual points gap between Verstappen and Norris after Imola: 60
What could have been: 46


Monaco was the only race this season at which Verstappen wasn't in the fight for pole position, leaving him sixth on the grid and bringing an end to his remarkable run of consecutive poles. Norris struggled throughout the weekend in Turns 3 and 4, losing 0.15s to his teammate at that part of the track -- a margin that would have secured him second on the grid had he unlocked his car's performance in those two corners.

As harsh as it might be to suggest Norris could have qualified two places higher and therefore finished two places higher (netting him six additional points), in a title battle against a driver as consistent as Verstappen, it was a clear opportunity to chip away more at the points deficit.

Actual points gap between Verstappen and Norris after Monaco: 56
What could have been: 36


Norris' missed opportunity was clearer cut in Montreal, but again showed just how difficult it is to beat Verstappen. Arguably neither Norris nor Verstappen had the fastest car in Canada, with Mercedes' George Russell taking pole position and showing impressive pace in the race.

Norris looked very competitive early on and took the lead in wet conditions only to lose it again under an unfortunately timed safety car. Norris failed to pit on the first lap under the safety car -- giving Verstappen, who did pit, the lead -- but what initially looked like cruel timing later revealed itself as a huge missed opportunity.

McLaren admitted it had a 1.5-second window in which it could have called Norris into the pits before he passed the pit lane entry, and by failing to do so missed the chance to stay ahead of Verstappen. The use of the safety car seemed so likely that the call should have been automatic, but ultimately neither team nor driver took the initiative.

Whether Norris would have been able to hold off Verstappen had he retained the lead after the safety car is a valid question, but given the pace of the car, he would have been in a strong position to win ahead of the Red Bull.

Points gap between Verstappen and Norris after Canada: 63
What could have been: 29


Norris laid the blame for his failure to win the Spanish Grand Prix purely on losing track position at the start. Given Verstappen's 2.2-second winning margin at the finish, and factoring in the time Norris lost overtaking Russell for second place in the first stint, it's hard to argue with that.

Wheelspin as he grabbed second gear seemed to be to blame, allowing Verstappen to draw alongside him and force his way past at Turn 1. Norris fought hard, putting the Red Bull on the grass as it drew alongside, but ultimately lost the place. McLaren's decision to run longer stints to give him the opportunity to fight back were sensible strategy choices and ultimately underlined the potential of the car in Barcelona, but weren't quite enough to make the difference.

"We should have won today," Norris 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 were quite easily the best car out there today. I just didn't do a good enough job off the line.

"I think as a team, we did the perfect strategy. And I was very happy with what we did, but yeah, the one part at the start, the 1% elsewhere wasn't good enough."

Verstappen, meanwhile, was faultless again and won the race with the pass on Norris at the start and his decisive overtake on Russell on lap three.

Points gap between Verstappen and Norris after Spain: 69
What could have been: 21

Could there really be a title battle this year?

The theoretical 21-point gap represents an extreme scenario. A scenario in which Verstappen made a mistake in Imola, Norris found time that perhaps wasn't there in Turns 3 and 4 in Monaco, McLaren made the correct call with just 1.5 seconds to react in Canada, and Norris made a better start in Spain.

Perhaps a more realistic "what if" scenario is one where Norris won the past two races. By his own admission, those two victories were possible and that would have left the gap at 41 points with 14 races remaining.

"We should have got some points back on Max," Norris said on Sunday evening. "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. Yeah, even though I 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 at the minute, and that's something we can't afford to do or can't afford to kind of 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 could have won two races. And I know there has always been a lot of 'should've, would've, could've,' but we have what it takes. It's just about putting it all together."

As Norris points out, perhaps the bigger takeaway from the past four races is that McLaren has had the raw car performance to fight Red Bull. What has kept Verstappen ahead was not necessarily mistakes from Norris' side but the metronomic consistency of the Red Bull driver.

"I mean, Max is not making any mistakes, really," Norris added. "So I think as soon as you make one little mistake, they're going to be ahead.

"It's about the smaller things at the minute. But every track is a bit different. Like we've seen Red Bull struggle a little bit more a few races ago, I think we're still proving to be one of the most consistent teams at every track that we've been to. So it's a little bit up and down. And I think we just need to stay doing what we're doing, because it's good enough for the time being. But it's just trying to eliminate a couple of those small, little mistakes."

While it's true the difference has been marginal at each round, it's how Verstappen is turning those margins in his favour that is putting this year's title battle beyond doubt. That is the mark of a truly exceptional driver.