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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Where Norris + McLaren's devastating pace came from

by Mark Hughes
6 min read

Yes, Lando Norris had a bit of a lucky break with the timing of the safety car in the Miami Grand Prix, but his pace in the upgraded McLaren MCL38 was devastating. Relative to the Red Bull and Ferrari, at any rate.

It was just plain faster on the day, even though it had qualified a few tenths slower, not as happy on the soft tyre as on the medium and hard used in the race.

It needed a few external variables to fall into place to convert that pace into victory, but Norris applied a vice-like grip on those opportunities to win his first grand prix. He’d finally got that screaming monkey off his back and silenced the moronic ‘choker’ jibes he’d had to fend off as recently as Friday sprint qualifying. This was a superbly polished, totally controlled drive.

Sergio Perez’s wild start, which scattered the Ferraris wide in avoidance - losing Carlos Sainz the second place he’d just taken from team-mate Charles Leclerc - also split the McLarens. Norris on the outside lost out in avoiding the melee while Oscar Piastri on the inside was perfectly placed to pounce, rubbing wheels with Sainz to go third and soon after putting a DRS pass on Leclerc.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Miami GP 2024

He ran at around three seconds behind Verstappen for the rest of the stint, with the Ferraris tailing him closely but not in a position to try a pass. Maybe if Sainz had been allowed past Leclerc that might have been different. He felt he had more pace and reported as much on lap seven, but it didn’t trigger any serious discussion on the Ferrari pitwall.

Norris meanwhile had been forced to back off to avoid the rejoining Perez and would be stuck behind him for many laps. A victory didn’t look the likely outcome.

Although the updated car is more aero-efficient than the original, it just didn’t have the straightline speed to pass. With DRS the McLaren was just about as fast at the end of the straight as the Red Bull without it. But even in the Red Bull’s turbulent air, Norris could feel the magic the car had on Friday on the mediums had returned.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Miami GP 2024

It was bizarre; the new car had swung in and out of phase. Super-fast on Friday, a couple of tenths off on Saturday, but now it felt like it had on Friday. It wasn’t only Norris; everyone was experiencing big fluctuations as the tyres proved moody. Verstappen wasn’t ever entirely happy with his balance, Leclerc neither.

Norris dropped a couple of seconds back to look after the tyres. Then closed back up as the pitstop window opened up for what was set to be an unambiguous one-stop race, applying a bit of undercut pressure on Perez, who just didn’t have the pace to respond.

Sergio Perez and Lando Norris, Miami GP 2024

Up front in the other Red Bull-McLaren formation, Verstappen kept his lead over Piastri at around three seconds. This wasn’t a classic Verstappen-Red Bull runaway sort of race. “I never felt comfortable with the car,” he said. “I couldn’t lean on the rear in the low speed but had understeer in the high speed.”

Red Bull brought Perez in at the end of lap 17 - and that’s when we got to see Norris’s amazing pace. He began lapping 1.0-1.5s faster than when he’d been behind the Red Bull as he set off after Sainz.

Leclerc, steadily more unhappy with the Ferrari as its tyres got older, was called in to put undercut pressure on Piastri on lap 19. Piastri stayed out. But with Leclerc no longer constraining him, Sainz upped his pace by over half a second. Still, though, that was around 0.5s slower than the advancing Norris.

Engineer GP - Gianpiero Lambiase - reported Norris’ laptimes to Verstappen. “I couldn’t have done those times on used mediums,” said the world champion. “That pace was insane. We weren’t quick enough.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Miami GP 2024

Leclerc on his fresh hards was lapping faster than Verstappen and was beginning to pose an undercut threat. Verstappen pressed on - but in so doing ran wide at Turn 15 and took out the bollard there, which lodged itself in the car for a while before tumbling out the rear. Afterwards, floor damage was found, but Verstappen said he didn’t feel any difference.

The bollard fell onto the track out of Turn 16 and it posed an obvious hazard. A virtual safety car came out, but after Verstappen had passed the pit entry road. The VSC was quickly rescinded - and Verstappen was obliged to pit with the pack back to full racing speed. He exited still ahead of Leclerc.

Sainz meanwhile was feeling the threat of the charging Norris and was brought in on lap 27. He followed Piastri down the pitlane and they left in the same order, but with Piastri having been undercut by Leclerc. Norris now led the race. A few moments later Kevin Magnussen and Logan Sargeant collided, leaving the Williams in the fence and needing to be retrieved. This was disastrous news for Piastri and Sainz, as it meant Norris could get his stop at a 10s saving to the pack.

It was almost disastrous for Norris as well, though. The safety car should have picked him up as the leader - in which case he would have been forced to stay out on old tyres because the compression of the field would have entailed a disastrous loss of places if he’d stopped.

But the safety car had instead picked up Verstappen, allowing Norris to get into the pits and out again still leading. Had the safety car error not been corrected by them waving everyone through, Norris would have potentially had a lap on the whole field.

Instead they lined up behind it in the order of Norris, Verstappen, Leclerc, Piastri, Sainz and Perez. Verstappen was hot on Norris’s tail as the race restarted and Lando needed to get defensive down to Turn 1. But he was so much quicker that he’d got more than a second on the Red Bull by the end of the lap and so was immune to the restoration of DRS. He proceeded to pull out around 0.3s per lap on Verstappen for the remaining distance, the McLaren’s advantage on the hard tyre even greater than on the medium.

Lando Norris leads Max Verstappen, Miami GP 2024

Piastri and Sainz meanwhile were wheel-to-wheel and occasionally rubbing sidewalls as the Ferrari driver tried to find a way past. He eventually did so into Turn 17 at the end of the long straight, but it was a late move and his rear wheel caught Piastri’s front wing endplate, requiring a pitstop for a new nose. Sainz continued on, fourth at the flag, but was later awarded a five-second penalty for the incident.

Perez could offer no threat to the Ferraris, even though he’d used the opportunity of the safety car for a free second stop to get onto fresh mediums.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Miami GP 2024

Instead, he had his hands full fending off Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton who, having started on hards, was on the faster medium at the end and had come back to life. Behind them, George Russell fought a losing battle with Yuki Tsunoda’s RB for seventh while Fernando Alonso made a late pass in his Aston Martin on the Alpine of his old friend Esteban Ocon for ninth.

Norris said he felt like he was cruising as he took the flag 7.6s clear of Verstappen. While there was no question he was the fastest driver on track, could he have won from his compromised position if there’d been no safety car?

Lando Norris, McLaren, Miami GP 2024

“It would have been tough,” he said. “I would’ve needed to have passed two Ferraris and Oscar even before I got to Max.”

There was an element of luck to it. But it was nonetheless a devastating performance. Lando Norris, grand prix winner.

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