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Formula 1

Norris has let Verstappen clash go - but McLaren can't

by Jack Cozens
5 min read

When Lando Norris offered what was essentially a 180-degree change of opinion on his and Max Verstappen's Austrian Grand Prix clash - saying his close friend didn't need to offer an apology, and even questioning whether Verstappen deserved his penalty - that appeared to draw a line under Formula 1 2024's most explosive on-track incident.

Step forward Zak Brown, CEO of the McLaren team Norris drives for, to reignite the storyline at Silverstone on Friday.

This was, Brown insisted, not specifically about Verstappen. He was at pains to stress what an "epic battle" his driver and Verstappen had shared, what an "awesome driver" he thinks the three-time F1 world champion is.

But not for the first time, Brown couldn't help but drag Red Bull into it.

Five days on from that race-defining clash, this was Brown's first chance to address it in public. He didn't waste his opportunity to share his opinion, which started with a point about permanent stewarding, and segued into a very public dig at Red Bull - and not just over a perceived lack of restraint it's shown in trying to control Verstappen.

"It was quite an epic battle. Exciting for the fans, exciting for everyone in Formula 1, I think it was a matter of time until we saw the two of them going head-to-head," said Brown in the team bosses' press conference. "Obviously an unfortunate outcome [from] what was a very small touch.

"But as we reflect on the weekend, I think we need - and I think this is something that the FIA agrees with - to invest more in our stewarding to have greater consistency and enforcement of the regulations.

"Having part-time stewards, it's a very difficult job, it's quite complex, and so to do it on a part-time basis on the level Formula 1 is at I think is difficult because Max and Lando were just duking it out as you'd expect them to do and until someone tells Max, 'Hey, that's against the regulations', he's not going to know any different. So I think there were missed opportunities for the stewards to make note.

"Also disappointed [at] such a great team like Red Bull that the leadership almost encourages it, because you listen on the radio and what was said - we all have a responsibility on pitwall to tell our drivers the dos and don'ts and what's going on in the race.

"We need to have respect for regulations and we've seen there be [a] lack of respect whether it's financial regulations or sporting, on-track issues with fathers and things of that nature. I just don't think that's how we need to go racing and we need to guide our drivers on what's right or wrong.

"Had it been addressed earlier, maybe that incident wouldn't have taken place. So [it was a] racing incident, but I think could've been avoided if the pitwall and the stewards had maybe been more on top of what the regulations say you can and can't do."

Calling out a rival's lack of respect so pointedly was a huge statement. But this is not the first time Brown's Red Bull grudge has surfaced.

He was a man on a mission over the winter to question Red Bull's ownership of two teams, and seemed to revel in predicting more Red Bull exits in the wake of Adrian Newey's departure. He was, on a similar and more serious note, among those advocating greater transparency around the external investigation into Christian Horner actioned by Red Bull.

And while those public callouts all happened at least two months ago, the total recall really isn't that difficult - that's to say, it's hard to see this as anything but the latest in a line of attacks with a loose attachment to an on-track incident, rather than that being the central focus of his messaging.

That impression was even harder to get away from as he responded to a question picking up on his remark about a "lack of respect" and whether he'd speak to Horner about that or if it was the FIA's place to do so; his unequivocal suggestion that "that's the FIA's role. I don't really have any interest in speaking with Christian" might have raised a wry smile, even if there's no doubt that's the opinion that Brown holds.

But while it should be noted that he wasn't alone in suggesting Red Bull had a greater duty of care - Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said in the same conference "it's always amusing to see the one-dimensional comments of team principals, where you think, 'Let's be a little bit objective at least'" - that impact of that last Brown comment, with an air of nonchalance, didn't really amount to anything more than a points-scoring tit-for-tat.

Brown even acknowledged that both drivers appeared to want to move on from the incident. "Show me a world champion, and I think ruthless and aggressive will be two good descriptions of any world champion or grand prix winning driver," he said in answer to a question about whether he was concerned Norris's U-turn meant he had conceded some psychological ground to Verstappen, a notion Brown rejected.

"I think they have a very strong relationship off the track. They spoke; what they spoke about is between them, but I think Lando and from what I saw from Max's comments, they both want to move on and get back to racing each other real hard on track."

The thing is, comments such as his reduce the opportunity for F1 and his driver to do so.

Brown raised some very valid points. The question of permanent stewards was one largely overlooked in the aftermath of the Verstappen-Norris clash, and his desire to see a review of track limits rules - in the wake of Norris's penalty for going off track while attempting to overtake Verstappen, despite ceding position almost immediately - was a sensible response to a ridiculous situation.

But he also undermined those observations too - and stole focus from what is shaping up to be an "epic battle" as he put it between Norris and Verstappen by stoking the embers of a fire that really might be better off being left alone.

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