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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: This was Norris's moment to stand up to Verstappen

by Mark Hughes
6 min read

It finally happened. The inevitable collision between king of the pride and the challenger, in the respective shape of Max Verstappen and Lando Norris.

It’s been building - and if it wasn’t here at the Austrian Grand Prix it would have been somewhere else.

The sticking Red Bull rear wheel at the final pitstop put the pieces in place for it to be here, on this day, in the late stages of the race, at Turn 3.

On their third niggly bout into there, Verstappen moved in the braking area and punctured his tyre against the McLaren’s. Norris took a puncture too, paving the way for a George Russell victory once he’d driven his Mercedes by the scene and carbonfibre fallout 13 seconds later.

There’s too much pride and status at stake for this not to be inevitable. The McLaren has become good enough over the last few races that it’s almost pushed Norris into a fight with his friend. It was easy to be friends when one had the dominant car and the other was playing years of catch-up and they shared their enthusiasms, their online racing, their banter. Verstappen has several times over the years bigged up Norris, recognising very well his level. 

But it was competitively unacceptable for Norris to just lie down to the totally uncompromising way Verstappen races if he is pushed to extremes.

For Verstappen, it’s inbuilt. He will not yield. He’ll play fair if he can. But if it’s the difference between winning or not, then he’s prepared to be as offensive as necessary.

In moments of extremis he will run you wide from inside or turn in from the outside or move around in the braking area. He’s talked about it before in his own documentary series, commenting: “You have to do everything you can to win. Sometimes you even have to be a d**k to win.” Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen have all experienced it. It’s inbuilt. It’s inviolable. 

Norris has noticeably changed in the last few months as he’s realised the McLaren has presented him with the opportunity of taking on his friend on close to equal terms. Less jokey, more focused, someone going into themselves knowing they are heading into a serious battle. Still self-critical, but realising circumstances had dictated it was time to stand up. Which maybe felt a little awkward when the target was his friend.

We saw a snapshot preview to the hard-edged Norris last week at Barcelona, as he’d edged Verstappen over onto the grass at the start.

“We slowed each other down there,” said Max as they watched a rerun of it in the green room. Lando didn’t respond, wasn’t up for discussing it. Verstappen tried to make a joke of it in the Barcelona press conference, but again Norris wasn’t up for joining in. He knew it had only delayed the moment of reckoning.


That moment came in this race, but only because the Red Bull’s sticky left-rear wheel at the second stop brought Norris into range, reduced a 7s lead down to 3s immediately, put him on brand new medium tyres to Verstappen’s used. That 3s became 1.7s, 1.1s and within DRS range on consecutive laps. That DRS sucked him into the battle, but he was ready for it.

Verstappen’s belligerence was probably only intensified by his anger at what he believed had been an excessively long middle stint and then the pitlane problem. Now, to top it all here came Norris trying to steal his win! He wasn’t in the mood.

Norris had been pushing hard enough that he’d already got a black and white warning flag for exceeding track limits. One more and he’d be getting a penalty.

It came on lap 59 of 71 as he lined Verstappen up into Turn 3 and made a late dive down the inside. It got him ahead but he couldn’t slow the car and turn and so ran off the road. He gave the place back. But regardless of that, he’d exceeded track limits for a fourth time and was duly given a five-second penalty. 

He'd tried to claim it was because Verstappen had reacted to his move, forcing him to run off. But that wasn’t true in this case. It had been true four laps earlier when Norris had to sweep around the back of the Red Bull at the last moment to avoid contact as Max had moved in the braking zone. But this one was on Norris.

The penalty potentially took the sting out of the brilliant contest but Norris wasn’t aware of it at this stage and threw another late move up the inside of Turn 3 on lap 63, getting to the apex ahead.

Verstappen ran off the track to avoid contact and rejoined back ahead. He didn’t give the place back.

There was briefly the prospect of any penalty for that neutralising Norris’s own. But that idea lasted only until the same place on the next lap when Red Bull left-rear made contact with McLaren right-rear, puncturing both.

The stewards subsequently awarded a 10-second penalty to Verstappen for causing an avoidable accident, but that hardly mattered. The tense contest had reached its inevitable flashpoint and both were out of contention.

Norris retired, though McLaren took the precaution of serving his penalty first so that it doesn’t carry over to Silverstone. Verstappen rejoined a distant fifth without even the point for fastest lap as a late Fernando Alonso stop for softs dipped him beneath Verstappen’s benchmark.


So Russell was the recipient of their belligerence. After coming out on top of a brief tussle with Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, he ran the early stages around 2s adrift of Norris who in turn had fallen 6s behind Verstappen in the first stint. Russell pulled out a comfortable gap on the battling Hamilton and Carlos Sainz behind.

Up to the second stops, Verstappen had maintained his gap over Norris to around 7s, with Russell now around 10s off the front in a race of his own. Going then with mediums, his stint was limited to 24 laps before they were finished and he switched to hards for the final stint. It was going to be a distant third, a good, polished performance which made Hamilton’s race look rather scrappy, Lewis having surrendered a place to Sainz in anticipation of a penalty then damaged his floor over the kerbs, losing him a lot of laptime and punishing the tyres. 

Instead that polished third became Russell’s second career F1 victory. He’d had Toto Wolff scream into his radio, “George, you can win this!” as if he needed telling. 

But before he did that he had to ensure he remained ahead of Oscar Piastri, who was just a couple of seconds adrift having put great passes on Sergio Perez’s damaged Red Bull (from a Turn 1 incident caused by Piastri and which put Charles Leclerc into the pits on lap one for a new nose), Sainz and Hamilton.

Had he not been penalised from third on the grid to seventh for track limits, there’s every reason to believe Piastri - and not Russell - would have been best-placed to inherit the victory.

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