Verstappen needs to adapt to having a rival again

Do you remember when the 2024 Formula 1 season was looking like it was going to be really boring? Back when the new Red Bull looked like it had moved the goal posts compared to the rest of the grid once again, and Max Verstappen took four dominant victories from the first five races…

It was a time when Verstappen utilized his expertise to open up a commanding championship lead, and then he responded to challenges coming from multiple directions by winning far tougher races in Imola, Canada and Spain.

Now things are different. Lando Norris is consistently knocking on his door, and Verstappen has to get used to having a proper rival again.


He had to repel attacks in the Sprint in Austria, too, to extend what was a 71-point advantage going into Sunday’s main grand prix. But for the first time in a number of years, it was at that point Verstappen appeared to really get his approach wrong.

Aggression has always been a huge part of his driving style, and he’s never liked to give up a position easily. But he also spoke in recent years of simply picking up the best result on offer and accepting when there are days that he might not have a race-winning package.

The problem in Austria: he clearly had a race-winning package for so long during the weekend, but it suddenly disappeared in the final stint for a variety of reasons.

Verstappen was complaining about the tires suddenly not performing as he expected in the middle of the race and already saw one pit stop not go smoothly before his second — called slightly early to match with the timing of McLaren’s stop and reduce any risk of being caught out by a Safety Car — was even slower due to a stuck left rear wheel nut.

All of those factors combined left Norris a little over 2s behind a frustrated Verstappen, and with the benefit of new medium tires to the Red Bull’s used set. The tire advantage allowed Norris to get within DRS range — so powerful in Austria he was unlikely to be shaken off again.

The battle raged on lap after lap before the inevitable happened under braking for Turn 3. Steven Tee/Motorsport Images

But this race was different to previous ones when Norris had opportunities to come back at Verstappen. The Red Bull seemed dominant; this was a race that looked his to win for so long. With a big Dutch contingent as always at the Red Bull Ring, the idea of being overtaken and beaten was not palatable.

“It seemed like a little bit desperate from his side,” Norris said afterwards. “He doesn’t need to be — he’s got plenty of wins — but [it was] a bit desperate to do what he could to not let me past.”

“I think [Norris] said the right things in saying it’s a great battle, but there’s no need to act so desperately,” Andrea Stella also surmised after the race. “There’s no need to think that the world is going to [end] if the overtaking maneuver by the car behind is going to be completed.

“Max, you’ll have your own opportunity. It’s not going to [end] the world now — if he makes it, [he deserved] to make it.”

Verstappen was clearly fired up, regularly complaining on team radio about Norris “divebombing” him into the corner, in a way that was remarkably reminiscent of Verstappen himself when he goes for a move. Criticizing the Dutchman for fighting so hard when “he’s got plenty of wins” is a strange approach, though.

That’s not to say Verstappen wasn’t wholly to blame for the collision that occurred, nor that he can’t improve and wouldn’t be an even better driver if he just stayed to the right side of the line when it comes to strong defending on Sunday. But there’s a refreshing aspect to the fact that he races in one way, and one way only, whether he’s fighting for his first point, his first win or his 62nd.

Norris was unhappy that Verstappen appeared to move in response to his own overtaking attempts on more than one occasion, calling it “just a bit reckless.” Then Stella drew attention to Verstappen being allowed to get away with such driving, both back in 2021 in his fight against Lewis Hamilton, and again on Sunday.

That’s certainly more of a reason to criticize the FIA rather than the driver. Verstappen is simply driving in the way that he’s been allowed to, and then when he crossed the line — leading to the contact that resulted in punctures for both drivers — he was penalized for it.

Looks familiar, doesn’t it? Austrian Grand Prix, 2019. Lorenzo Bellanca/Motorsport Images

That’s where his error was. The rest was him playing to the whistle in the way that all of the best drivers do. The perfect example came in 2019 when Charles Leclerc felt Verstappen should have been penalized — ironically for forcing him off at Turn 3 in Austria in their fight for the win — but took on board the feedback about what the stewards deemed acceptable and duly raced Verstappen with equal measure a week later at Silverstone.

On that occasion the stakes were lower, but it was a thrilling race and set the tone for when the pair would cross paths again in future. This time around, there could be a repeat.

Norris hasn’t had many chances to win races, but he’s growing into the role of Verstappen’s closest challenger. He’s shown that he can consistently put the pressure on, and even pull out stunning laps such as his final qualifying attempt in Spain to get the better of the three-time world champion.

Verstappen similarly hasn’t had a true rival since the first half of 2022, and even then the trend was the opposite to today, where McLaren has been closing on Red Bull. The championship gap is huge, but with 13 races still to go Verstappen knows he still needs to take every chance he gets given how much the performance gap has shrunk this year.

Despite their friendship, the pair have also not properly raced each other prior to this season.

It’s Verstappen who’s tended to have the machinery to fight for wins, while Norris is only just starting to enjoy that luxury. Just as the Red Bull driver started to rattle Hamilton’s cage as he challenged his dominance — and those rivals had many incidents for which they were each blamed while trying to work out how to race each other — it’s now Norris who has the potential to do the same to Verstappen.

Even if this season is drifting away from a championship point of view for Norris, the cars are converging to the point that 2025 could be an epic title battle, and lines drawn this year will play a part in every fight moving forward.

Regardless of whether the FIA clarify the rules of racing, or the sting gets taken out of the championship, it’ll be interesting to see how Verstappen and Norris both adapt.

Story originally appeared on Racer