Can McLaren and Lando Norris Give Max Verstappen a Fight?

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Can McLaren and Norris Give Verstappen a Fight?NurPhoto - Getty Images

For more than five years, Lando Norris was a rising star missing the Formula 1 win that would make him a real contender. Then McLaren introduced a series of upgrades to its 2024 car at the Miami Grand Prix, and on race day a safety car came out at just the right time. Norris was handed the lead by fortuitous timing, but an incredible stint saw him pull away from Red Bull's Max Verstappen for an undeniable debut win. Now the question is not if he will win but how many wins he can collect. Those upgrades might just pose a serious threat to the runaway Max Verstappen championship the world expected all season.

Norris is now a winner, and with that comes big new expectations. The biggest are the hopes suddenly placed on his shoulders to finally be the one to give Verstappen a week-to-week challenge, something that has never actually happened under the rule set introduced in 2022. In one race, McLaren seemingly replaced Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. as the biggest threats to Red Bull's dominance, and Norris instantly became the driver who could give Verstappen the biggest immediate problems.

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The key to that hope is in how Norris performed in clean air. Over the past two years, a driver getting the jump on Verstappen's Red Bull ahead of a safety car usually meant an opportunity for Verstappen to show the car's dominant relative pace within the next two laps. Here, Norris not only held his own on the restart but began to pull away. He kept the Red Bull out of DRS range first, then slowly pulled a bigger and bigger lead until the race was effectively out of Verstappen's hands with more than fifteen laps to go. From there, Norris was under no direct pressure on his way to a win.


Red Bull has lost two other races to Ferrari's Carlos Sainz Jr. in the past year, but those were not competitive. In one case, the team's cars were not up to their usual speed for the entire 2023 Singapore Grand Prix weekend. In another, Sainz won in Australia only after Verstappen retired early. This weekend, Norris restarted directly in front of Verstappen in a fully healthy car and still won the head-to-head battle.

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The team's qualifying pace was less encouraging, and that may be a cause for alarm going forward. The weekend's sprint race format meant that the McLarens got two shots at beating out Verstappen for pole. Instead, the pair put up a best qualifying result of fifth over two attempts. If that pattern holds on other tracks, the team will start just about every race in a hole to Verstappen. McLaren's race pace will have to be enough to beat out that disadvantage.

Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez retain a hold on the top of the championship standings at 136 and 103 points, respectively. At 83 points, Norris is already well behind in any hunt for the title. McLaren has plenty of time, though; just a quarter of the 24-race season has been run, and four of the six scheduled sprint races remain, too. That means plenty of points up for grabs if McLaren really has a car that can take an equal fight to Red Bull, but Norris has to get to fighting now and never let up.

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Unless Ferrari has a similar upgrade in its back pocket waiting to debut in the next few races, a resurgent McLaren is the only conceivable way that Verstappen could run every race and still lose this championship. That makes for a great opportunity for Lando Norris, but it is a big ask to come from behind and beat a three-time champion in a car that was not competitive when the season started. A win means that the season is already a success for Norris, but the biggest dreams in the sport might still be within reach, too.

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