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Formula 1

Verstappen is 'not going to change' - so Norris rivalry will

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

Max Verstappen and Lando Norris have cleared the air since their Austrian Grand Prix battle that ended in a first clash between them but it will inevitably change things on-track.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Sky Sports F1 ahead of the British GP this week that “they’ve spoken already, I don’t think there is any issue”. But he added: “Certainly, from Max's side, he's not going to change.

“There's an element, I think, of Lando learning how to race Max and they're discovering that.

“Inevitably, there is going to be more close racing between the two of them as the cars look so close over the forthcoming races.”

Horner’s right, Verstappen will not change. Which means the on-track rivalry with Norris will.

There’s a reason Norris was much more aggrieved with their clash than Verstappen was, and it’s probably not that Verstappen had the consolation of at least finishing fifth (he won’t care about that).

Verstappen’s been here before, clashed with almost everybody he's raced at the front. It’s a natural thing to him – not malicious, just his interpretation of what racing is. Others don’t see it that way, but that is how Verstappen does and by extension how he races.

As Horner put it, Lando’s “learning” and “discovering” things about his friend he’ll have only heard from other drivers or seen in clips. It’s different when you’re trying to react to that yourself in real-time.

That’s why, looking past one controversial clash, the Austrian weekend will have been super valuable for Norris because what you can expect or anticipate from Verstappen in battle is not the same as actually living it. It was another step in Norris’s up-close education in how Verstappen has achieved what he has, and what taking him on is really like.

The last few weekends there have been glimpses of how hard it is to beat Verstappen, to be at 100% and nail those crucial moments – Canada with the safety car, Barcelona with the race start, the Austrian sprint race. F1’s all about fine margins and if you review those small details that swung each of those races away from Norris and towards Verstappen, you find ways it could have been different.

Verstappen would probably have been primed to pit the second any safety car was deployed in Canada. Verstappen has incredibly consistent, high-quality starts. Verstappen doesn’t leave the door open when he’s just mugged an opponent and chopped in front of them on the next straight to defend the position.

All this is easy to write out but much harder to execute in reality, especially race in, race out. That’s why 24 hours before he eviscerated Verstappen’s driving on the Sunday in Austria, McLaren team boss Andrea Stella had lauded the Dutchman: “Clearly, the racecraft of Max is just excellent.

“He knows how to defend when a car behind has the DRS, in a track like Austria it’s prohibitive sometimes when the car was so close. But he managed to do the right decisions without even having contact or anything.

“There’s various levels. And at the moment Max is, for the current standards of Formula 1 drivers in 2024, setting a very high level that for the others is an ambition to match.”

Stella felt differently by Sunday evening, at least in terms of that specific fight. But it will have still fed into Norris’s learning process. Because what Norris hadn’t experienced up until now is that ruthlessness first-hand.

As Horner has said: “If you’re going to race against Max, he’s going to give as good as he gets.” And then some. Norris got a taste of that for the first time in F1. And he didn’t triumph, but he showed he was not going to just stand down.

Norris tried different things – a conventional pass (blocked under braking), a divebomb (went too far, flew off the track), a better judged dive (but he didn’t leave Verstappen enough space on the exit) and that final move on the outside (where Verstappen came back across into him).

Norris said he had no reason to do anything different or change how he races Verstappen because he did nothing wrong. But it's worth keeping in mind that he lost out in that fight. And it's on Norris to work out how to prevent that in the future. Each battle will pose a different scenario, the answer will not be the same each time.

If you ask ‘could Norris have done anything different himself to live to fight another lap’ in Austria, the answer is yes, even if that’s a little harsh. In hindsight, perhaps Norris will realise he could have afforded himself a couple more inches on the outside kerb.

That’s not to say he should have – Verstappen needs to leave a car’s width to the track edge and that’s the white line not the kerb – and maybe that was Norris drawing a line, realising he needed to fight fire with fire. He might have beaten Verstappen with this approach. Maybe next time he will, especially if he layers on some of this experience.

It's good that Norris already experimented so much in this battle and that he stood up to Verstappen wheel-to-wheel. What he learned this time could lead to a different outcome the next.

Norris needs to rein in where he pushed it too hard himself, and needs to remember how Verstappen gave him no more than the rules permit in some cases and was willing not to even offer that at times too.

He must take what he has experienced here and translate that into a refined way to take on Verstappen.

Because if he doesn’t change, and Horner's confirmed Verstappen won't, then this risks going the same way every time they fight each other in the future. Not necessarily in contact and acrimony, but in Verstappen coming out on top.

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