Kurt Verlin
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Lando Norris’s F1 Title Fight Fades in Barcelona

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Norris, Leclerc, Perez, Hamilton, Alonso battle it out for final podium position at 2022 British Grand Prix
Photo: fuji.tim via CC

Lando Norris finished second at the Spanish Grand Prix and showed little of his usual cheer. Since bagging his first-ever win in Miami earlier this year, he has finished second on three occasions — and on each of those occasions, it was title rival Max Verstappen who stood on the top step of the podium.

Last year, when Lando managed to finish right behind Max, it was cause for festivity, accompanied by the young Brit’s customary champagne cork-popping podium celebration (look it up on YouTube). But last year, the Red Bull Racing domination was so complete that its competitors had little hope of doing better. In 2024, however, things have changed. Runner-up is no longer the best possible result.

For the first time in now 19 podiums, Lando chose not to do his signature celebration.

Lando / McLaren vs Max / Red Bull so far

McLaren, Lando’s team, started the season on the back foot. Across the first five races, Lando and teammate Oscar Piastri scored a combined 96 points, compared to 195 points scored by Max and Sergio Pérez for Red Bull. It looked ominously like we would get a repeat of 2023, when Red Bull won 22 of 23 races.

Then, car upgrades in hand, McLaren scored 141 points in the next five races, including a win in Miami, beating Red Bull’s tally of 135. The balance of power had shifted, and some are even calling the McLaren the outright fastest car on the grid, by a slim margin. Yet fastest car or not, Max just keeps winning.

Like his team, Lando’s tally of 92 points in the past five races is a major improvement over the 58 he scored in the first five, and puts him second overall in the championship. But Max, who managed 110 in the first five, still managed another 109 in the last five, even as the loss in car advantage has seen Sergio plummet in the standings. With 10 of the season’s 24 rounds now completed, Max’s 79-point lead in the championship is a substantial one.

Three runner-ups that could have been

The most critical detail is that Lando’s three recent runner-up finishes could easily have gone the other way. He concluded the Emilio-Romagna Grand Prix just 0.725 seconds behind Max, having closed down a six-second gap in the final 15 laps. Just one more go-around may well have seen him first to the checkered flag.

In Montreal, Lando was superb around a wet circuit and passed Max down the back straight, then lost the position due to poor strategy calls from his team. Despite this, he may have been able to come back at Max later on — had he not lost time by running wide at the first corner.

Most recently, in Barcelona, Lando set himself up well by beating Max to pole position, but immediately dropped to third at the start. His pace in the final part of the race was unmatched, but by that point he was too far back to bring the fight to Max, who ultimately finished a tantalizing two seconds up the road.

“Yeah, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” Lando responded to his engineer during the cooldown lap, after being told he had finished second with an extra point for setting the fastest lap. “I should have won, I fucked up the start. The car was amazing, well done. Deserved more.”

Had Lando managed to convert those three second places to victories, he would be just 27 points instead of 79 points behind Max in the championship, with incredible momentum behind him.

Failure to capitalize

At the start of 2024, everyone rightfully feared a repeat of Red Bull’s 2023 dominance. Fortunately, since Lando’s win in Miami, it’s been clear that Red Bull no longer has the car advantage it used to. Yet the team’s operational excellence, and Max’s indomitable individual performance, is still proving too difficult to beat for McLaren and Lando, despite their own car’s superior speed.

If Lando ultimately loses the F1 title fight by roughly 50 points or less, he may look back at this recent stretch of races and rue not having done a better job at capitalizing on his advantages. And judging by his obvious frustration at the Spanish Grand Prix, he likely knows there’s a very real chance this is exactly how the 2024 season will go down.