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Max Verstappen charges to F1 Chinese GP victory with Lando Norris second
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Max Verstappen charges to F1 Chinese GP victory with Lando Norris second

Victory at the Chinese Grand Prix belonged by no small distance to Max Verstappen but the plaudits were earned in a Shanghai surprise by McLaren’s Lando Norris. The British driver’s debut Formula One win remains elusively out of reach but in China he demonstrated once more that it is only a matter of time before the flag finally falls for this exceptional talent who claimed a second place so unexpected that it left his team all but gobsmacked.

Norris had not even bet on himself to finish in front of the Ferraris but not only were the prancing horses vanquished as the 24-year-old came good but Red Bull too were given a reminder that without Verstappen their control of the sport would be far from complete.

Verstappen won with another dominant drive but had to re-establish his lead twice in a race interrupted by two safety cars, extending his title advantage over teammate Sergio Pérez, who was third, to 25 points. All very much by the 2024 F1 playbook, remarkable only perhaps in the almost breathtaking advantage in pace he demonstrated.

Behind him however Norris and McLaren confounded expectations, including their own, with a stunning performance. Taken in context it was exactly the frisson of unexpected exhilaration F1 requires as Verstappen eases towards his fourth title.

Before the race, being held for the first time since 2019 after an enforced absence caused by the pandemic, the McLaren team principal, Andrea Stella, had warned it would be “damage limitation” given the car’s weakness in the low-speed corners that dominate in Shanghai.

Indeed, Norris, starting in fourth with the two Ferraris behind him, had been so convinced he would succumb to the Scuderia he was willing to put money on it.

He had suggested a bet with his race engineer, Will Joseph, that he would be passed by both Ferraris. Joseph did not take him up on it, a missed opportunity as it transpired as Norris proved genuinely quicker and even able to comfortably beat Pérez.

“I made a bet on how far we’d finish behind the Ferraris today and I thought 35 seconds but I was very wrong, happy to be wrong with myself and the bet,” he said, with the air of a man who had found a winning slip in his back pocket.

McLaren also executed superbly. They switched Norris to a one-stop strategy mid-race when he was able to take a free stop under the virtual safety car. It elevated him to second place but with a full 34 laps to the flag.

Norris, who has admitted he is usually a glass-half-empty character, must have felt it was risky and left him with an all-but-impossible task against the chasing Pérez. Yet he stepped up with alacrity as acknowledged by Stella, who was also still pinching himself.

“This was a good result and a good surprise,” he said. “We maintained second position thanks to the pace of the car and some amazing driving from Lando.”

Lando Norris of Britain crosses the finish line to place second.View image in fullscreen

Before the season began Norris conceded he was so relentlessly self-analytical he would engage, Homer Simpson-style, in arguments with himself but that when on track he was intensely focused. He had made a decisive move on Fernando Alonso early on to claim third but it was the run after the switch to one stop that was crucial.

A long run to the flag ensued as he held his pace and place even as Pérez was chasing him. Driving with exquisite precision and racecraft, he delicately managed his rubber, taking easier lines through corners such that by the end Pérez had nothing left to come at him with, and in the final laps Norris was quicker than the Mexican.

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It was an extraordinary feat and he only put a foot wrong when it no longer mattered. He drove towards the pit lane when the race was over rather than his parc fermé position on the grid, an error even his critical mind can dismiss with ease.

For McLaren this was an immense result and more may yet be to come. They will bring their first major upgrades to the next round in Miami, where conceivably they have a chance to advance to be genuinely the second-quickest team on the grid, a vindication of the decade-long rebuilding process the team has been going through.

Drivers negotiate the opening turns at the Shanghai International CircuitView image in fullscreen

Mercedes, too, will bring upgrades to Miami but they require an even greater leap forward. Lewis Hamilton came back from 18th to ninth but he flattered to deceive. The car was a handful to drive, the balance in such disarray that he complained it felt like he had sustained damage.

It was another sobering afternoon as the team principal Toto Wolff admitted with no little understatement it was “not an OK car” and that their experimentation in trying to tease performance out of it was giving Hamilton an undeservedly torrid time.

They will hope for more in Miami, while Verstappen will saunter into the Florida sunshine with a spring in his step. Norris provided the excitement, but only from second because the Dutchman was untouchable. He had a six-second lead within eight laps and even when Pérez was in clean air to come at him, the Mexican was still being beaten by a full six-tenths of a second per lap.

Verstappen’s lead at the close was 14 seconds but would have been double that but for the safety cars. Norris, then, must still wait to go wheel to wheel with the world champion but on this form, what a feast it would be.Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were fourth and fifth. George Russell was in sixth for Mercedes, Fernando Alonso in seventh for Aston Martin, Oscar Piastri in eighth for McLaren and Nico Hülkenberg in 10th for Haas.

Source: theguardian.com