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Max Verstappen holds off Lando Norris surge to win F1 Emilia-Romagna GP
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Max Verstappen holds off Lando Norris surge to win F1 Emilia-Romagna GP

Proof then that there is life yet in the old dog, Formula One’s Emilia‑Romagna Grand Prix managed to ­deliver a finale at Imola worthy of the venerable venue. While Max ­Verstappen was the winner once again, he was chased to the flag in a thrilling climax by Lando Norris – providing definitive evidence that the world champion will not have it all his own way this season.

F1 has been a tough sell these past two years, ­Verstappen romping to the championship all but unchallenged last season and the opening meetings of 2024 were more of the same – a Groundhog Day narrative that was becoming somewhat stale until McLaren and Norris arrived at the last round in Miami to breathe invigorating life into what was becoming a torpid season.

Norris won in Florida and here at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino ­Ferrari he hounded Verstappen for the final eight laps of the race, hurling his McLaren at the track and his rival, with thrilling verve and tenacity in as exciting a fight F1 has seen since the new regulations were imposed in 2022. When the flag fell, ­Verstappen had a lead of just 0.7sec on Norris, a mere bagatelle between them as theypair hurtled across the line.

That Norris could not quite make the pass was irrele­vant. Most of the race had been following the Punxsutawney Phil script, Verstappen com­fortable from pole, with a 6sec lead, but when his tyres began to go off – and Norris’s rubber came good, having gently eased them into the stint early on – racing broke out with almost explosive exhilaration.

The tifosi swiftly recognised what was happening and even though it was not a Ferrari in the fight – with their man Charles Leclerc managing only third – they roared Norris on and the British driver responded.

As Verstappen’s pace fell away, with his rubber shot and him knowing that after a warning for exceeding track limits another infringement would mean a penalty, Norris and McLaren tasted blood in the water and with the instinct of the very best drivers, the 24-year-old thrashed his tail and bared his fangs. On lap 55 of 63, the gap came tumbling down, the 6sec lead became 3sec, then just over 1sec.

Ferrari supporters wave flags and set off flares.View image in fullscreen

Norris was throwing everything at it, Verstappen similarly putting his all into keeping the car on track and in front. A nailbiting final lap ensued, Norris within DRS range but unable to quite move close enough to pass. Verstappen had held his nerve and the win but only just, for what was remarkably his second victory of the day and after no little fun the night before.

He had been up the previous ­evening competing in a sim race of the Nürburgring 24 Hours, which his team duly won. After which, he revealed that both he and Norris had also watched the Fury-Usyk boxing into the early hours. Yet in those final laps in the real world, he described as like ­driving on ice, he demonstrated no shortage of stamina, an iron will to hold his nerve at the death.

Verstappen conceded just how tough it had been. “I had to work hard for that,” he said. “I had Lando ­closing in, so the last 10 laps were just flat out and it was very difficult when the tyres aren’t working any more and you have to go flat out.”

The two drivers are friends, they enjoy racing one another but they race hard and there is no quarter given. Neither could do any more, although Norris was rightly convinced he would have had the win with a few more minutes on track. “It hurts me to say it, but with one or two more laps, I could have had him,” he said. “It is tough. I fought hard until the very last lap but I lost too much time to Max at the beginning. With one or two more laps it could have been beautiful, but not today.”

McLaren must be now considered the team closest placed to Red Bull, a mighty turnaround for the team that were flailing toward the back of the grid at this point last season, since which they have found a sweet spot that has catapulted them into competition and, whisper it, perhaps even reignited the title fight.

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If that is the case, then they will have no illusions as to the task ahead with and Norris trailing Verstappen by 60 points.

This was also an enormously impressive reco­very weekend for Red Bull. After they had struggled to come to grips with their setup as they adapted to a raft of upgrades brought to Imola – the car lacking grip and balance until they turned it around for qualifying – this will be seen as a win they and ultimately Verstappen really had to grind out.

Which is what the sport needs. The competition at the top of F1 should be fierce and, at least on occasion, unpredictable. At Imola it was both and with a spot of luck this race indicated there will be more to follow.

With his teammate Sergio Pérez managing only eighth, Verstappen has extended his lead in the title race to 48 points now over Leclerc in ­second. The Mercedes of George ­Russell and Lewis Hamilton continued to struggle and they made little impact, finishing in sixth and seventh.

Oscar Piastri was fourth for McLaren, Carlos Sainz fifth for Ferrari, Lance Stroll was ninth for Aston Martin and Yuki Tsunoda 10th for RB.

Source: theguardian.com