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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Norris lost a Canadian GP he should have won

by Mark Hughes
8 min read

The 2024 Canadian Grand Prix proved to be a Montreal classic where the weather regularly intervened at perfect moments to keep the fight alive between three different drivers in three different Formula 1 teams (though none of them were Ferraris).

The track itself, with kerb usage that hurt the Red Bull a little and a narrow corner speed range that perhaps flattered the Mercedes – and with a McLaren that was pretty good at everything – also helped with the formation of this beautifully poised contest.

One which was fought out in dramatic wheel-to-wheel style, malevolent walls just waiting beyond the narrow dry grooves within an otherwise wet surface. It was everything Monaco wasn’t. A race which placed both teams and drivers under a severe stress test, strategically and out on track. 

It was won by Max Verstappen, who was pretty much perfect in taking control of a race in which his Red Bull was merely competitive, not dominant. But on raw performance Lando Norris and McLaren should have won it. They’d chosen a set-up/tyre pressure combination which, just like at Imola, required them to be gentle early in the stints but which paid back spectacularly later and allowed Norris in the opening inters-shod stint to come from a long way back to pass Verstappen and George Russell’s polesitting Mercedes in quick succession and then to build an 8s lead.

As far as anything could be a sure thing on a day of such weather-induced jeopardy, he looked to have it in the bag, the fastest combination, the surest-footed, the best on the tyres. 

But what the safety car gifted them in Miami took away from them here. Although the timing of that first safety car was unlucky for him, there was no need for him to have missed the pitentry. There was plenty of time. He was around 300 metres before the final chicane as the S/C lights (on his dash and the circuit) lit up on lap 25 and he could easily have gone straight into the pits – as the following Verstappen, Russell and Oscar Piastri did.

But the call never came and he didn’t take the initiative. As Norris was then delayed by 10s as the safety car picked him up on his in-lap and the others were driving their out-laps to the faster safety car delta speed, so he lost places to both the Red Bull and Mercedes, only just getting out in front of team-mate Piastri. 

Verstappen had got ahead of Russell as the latter had tried to defend Norris’ pass on him into the final chicane a few laps earlier and been forced to take to the escape apron to avoid contact. The lost momentum made it a simple matter for Verstappen to pick him off. They’d raced out of the pitlane almost neck and neck but the Red Bull remained just ahead. 

That non-decision of Norris and McLaren not to react immediately to the safety car lost him the race in hindsight, despite a stirring effort to put right that wrong. But given that McLaren and Norris made that error, Russell then made several more which ultimately lost him the chance of taking on Verstappen for the win. Fighting against the Verstappen/Red Bull gold standard, even on a track which posed challenges for it, such errors were never going to go unpunished. 

The weather divided the race into two intermediate stints and a final one on slicks. As the initial set of inters were on the point of wearing out after around 20 laps it seemed there were about to be some agonising choices to be made on the pit walls. Fresh inters or slicks? Get that call wrong and your race would be ruined. Get the timing wrong and you’d be severely compromised.

There was a dry-ish line down throughout the lap apart from at Turn 2 and the laptimes were approaching slicks territory. But there was more rain on the way. But when? So everyone was hanging on to their inters, delaying that choice for as long as possible. 

Norris was by now well into his groove. He and Piastri had run the early laps conservatively in third and fourth and were 10s behind Russell and Verstappen after 10 laps. But that was the plan. From the second row but potentially just as fast as the Mercedes and Red Bull on the front row, they’d opted for stealth. Part of that was a fairly high tyre pressure, whereby you’ll struggle in the wet initially but get more longevity and come on ever-stronger the longer the stint goes on.

It took only a further nine laps before Norris had wiped that early deficit and was hassling Verstappen hard. Piastri had come with him. The McLaren was visibly faster than the Red Bull and Norris was emboldened. Just ahead of Verstappen was Russell and in the space of two laps Norris had zapped them both, with the aid of DRS into the final chicane. Not only that, but he left them quickly behind, almost 8s clear four laps after taking the lead.  

The uncertainty about what the weather was about to do had played perfectly into his hands, as it meant everyone was extending the stint to forestall decision time – and the longer the stint went on, the more Norris’ set-up was rewarding him. Verstappen and Russell were both struggling with the left rears by now and their pace was not improving with the track the way Norris’ was. 

In hindsight, Norris’ great tyre life on the inters worked against him when the safety car (Logan Sargeant had crashed at Turn 4) came out on lap 25. In the two laps before that Norris and engineer Will Joseph were discussing whether he could stay on these tyres through the next rain shower and get straight onto slicks as it subsided after 10 minutes.

It was dry enough for slicks now, Norris replied, but obviously if it was about to rain again it could be very tricky being on worn inters. For Verstappen and Russell there was no such question to be answered as the race came under the safety car; their tyres were finished. They needed to be replaced, it was a time-cheap pitstop, it was about to rain again, so inters it was. Easy. With their original tyres still in reasonable shape, Norris and his engineer were still discussing whether they could miss out a second inters stop when the safety car came but barely interrupted that discussion.

He passed the trackside SC sign about 300 metres before the pitlane entrance. Had he pitted immediately and had inters fitted (if they were ready), he would likely have won the race.  But he carried on. 

Only as he was then caught behind the safety car at Turn 4 did the discussion move onto pitting (still under the safety car) for intermediates. Which is what they did, but the safety car had lost him around 10s to Verstappen and Russell and dropped him to third.

On his fresh inters into the second stint, with the track now around 4s slower, the plan was the same as first time around; gentle early in the stint to get the payback later. So Verstappen and Russell pulled out around 3.5-4s. But as the shower passed and the track began getting close once more to slick territory, there were again decisions to be made on the pitwall. Turn 2 was again the problem. By lap 38-39 it was otherwise good for slicks. 

Pierre Gasly made the slicks gamble. Lewis Hamilton pitted from fifth for his set soon after, as did Fernando Alonso one lap later. Verstappen and Russell made the call a lap after Alonso on lap 45. But Norris stayed out two more laps, the reasoning being that his warm inters might be faster than the cold slicks of Verstappen and Russell and he could therefore overcut them.

They were, but not by enough to get ahead of Verstappen, Lando marginally ahead as he exited the pitlane but all crossed up on the wet of Turn 2 as Verstappen surged by on the inside. 

More hindsight regrets from Norris: “I probably pushed too late on that middle stint,” said Norris. “We stayed out because I was so quick at the end of the stint but I didn’t push early enough and I could have got past George one or two laps before the stops and closed the gap to Max to give myself a better opportunity of over-cutting him.” 

So then it played out with Verstappen pulling out 5.5s on Norris whose lower pressures were now working against him with the slicks. Russell DRS’d his way past him on the 49th lap but then had a big crossed-up moment through Turn 4, giving the place back to Norris. Piastri was watching on but soon with his hands full fending off Hamilton. 

A second safety car (Carlos Sainz, running way out of the top 10, lost control of the Ferrari and took out Alex Albon’s Williams) allowed Hamilton a free pitstop for a fresh set of slicks (hards this time rather than mediums), but Russell was pitted to exchange his hards for mediums, surrendering a place to Piastri in the process.

They were briefly very fast on their fresh rubber but Russell found he could not intimidate Piastri aside into the chicane and after rubbing wheels with the McLaren took to the run-off again.

This allowed Hamilton past and Russell had to get very committed in the braking zone for the final chicane next time to take the place back before then finally pitting a successful move on Piastri. But it had all used up valuable time and tyre life and so he was third on a day he might have been fighting for the win at the end. 

Once Yuki Tsunoda had spun his RB on his very old tyres, Lance Stroll followed Aston Martin team-mate Alonso home in seventh ahead of Daniel Ricciardo’s RB, and Gasly whose early slick strategy (and some team orders) got him ahead of the other Alpine of Esteban Ocon for ninth.

Monaco victor Charles Leclerc was in this race but with a power unit gremlin in his Ferrari (and an ill-timed slicks gamble), he didn’t figure before the car was retired while he was a lap down, just underlining that this really was nothing like Monaco. 

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