Are Lando Norris and McLaren a threat to Red Bull now?

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MIAMI — The sight of any car pulling a gap on Max Verstappen’s Red Bull has been rare in F1’s recent past but Lando Norris was able to canter away from the three-time world champion to secure his maiden F1 win at Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix.

Norris’ victory margin of nearly eight seconds was, by Formula One’s recent standards, a rout of Verstappen and his dominant RB20 car. On the surface it is easy to get excited about the nature of his win given the one-sided championship season we have seen to this point and the ease with which Verstappen has won the other four races he has finished in 2024.

– Norris beats Verstappen in Miami GP for first F1 win
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Even more tantalizing was the fact Norris’ victory — his first in 110 F1 race starts — came at the first attempt with the big upgrade package McLaren brought to the race, its first significant one of the year so far. Teammate Oscar Piastri will also have the new package for F1’s next race, Imola’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

While a new race winner will always prompt excitable statements about a new reality at the front, there were clear extenuating circumstances which helped end Norris’ winless streak.

The collision between Kevin Magnussen and Logan Sargeant which prompted the Safety Car changed the course of the contest, rewarding Norris and McLaren for going long with the first stint. The Magnussen-Sargeant clash happened shortly after Norris had moved from fifth up to first as his rivals pitted. The British driver had been carefully managing his tyres in a bid to attack with fresh rubber later in the race.

McLaren felt like Norris’ extended first stint would have left him with the pace to attack at the end of the race had there not been a Safety Car, although he was skeptical he could have made enough passes on track to win the race in that scenario.

“It would have been tough,” Norris said on the hypothetical of a race without a Safety Car. “I would have had to overtake two Ferraris, a Red Bull, Oscar [Piastri].”

Then there was the state of Red Bull’s car all weekend, and notably Verstappen’s during the race itself. Despite taking pole position for the sprint (which he won) and for the grand prix, Verstappen and Red Bull struggled to get their hands around the set-up of the car around the Miami circuit.

Verstappen potentially complicated matters further when he went straight over the Turn 14/15 chicane, knocking over a cone in the process.

“I don’t think we had a great balance all weekend,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner said on Sunday evening. “Obviously, he hit the bollard around Lap 20 and that has actually done quite a lot of damage to the underside of the car, so we will have to look at exactly what the effect of that was.

“It is a reasonable amount of the area around the left rear floor. There is a reasonable amount that’s missing and you can see it awfully flexing as well, so it certainly wouldn’t be helping.”

Verstappen himself made light of the incident — joking “I didn’t like [the cone], so I decided to take it out and test the durability of the front wing as well!” — but downplayed Horner’s suggestion it had a negative impact on his car’s performance.

Red Bull later explained Verstappen had not seen pictures of the car before going into the news conference. “He lost two-and-a-half-tenths in Turn 1 every lap,” Horner said. “Whether that was because of the damage… when you actually see the pictures of what was missing, it wasn’t designed like that.”

McLaren came away from the weekend excited at the clear gains made with the upgrade and just with its pace in general. Raw lap times in the race had looked good. Even Piastri, driving in the “old-spec” McLaren without all the upgrades Norris had available to him, had looked competitive before a tangle with Carlos Sainz ruined his race. Team boss Andreas Stella played down the suggestion Norris’ win was a sign of a new reality in F1 in the immediate future.

“I think yes, we improved the car,” Stella said of the upgraded package. “We know in the numbers how much we improved it. And it’s material, you see it in lap time.

“But I think this race for Red Bull was a little bit of a struggle. So before we say the pace we saw today is a representative of the future, I’m not going to put my signature on this statement.”

The race represented another feather in Stella’s cap, having also orchestrated the huge turnaround McLaren achieved last year when it leaped from the back of the order to being Red Bull’s closest rival on the back of one upgrade at the Austrian Grand Prix in June 2023. Another successful upgrade will only heighten the optimism and momentum which Stella has cultivated since stepping into the team boss role.

It will also serve as a reminder about just how tangible progress can be with the right development path.

“We take this positive, we take this encouragement,” Stella added on Sunday. “If anything it’s even more energy to develop in my view, if you want to fight consistently Red Bull, we need to deliver another package like the one we have delivered here.

“In Japan we were sixth-tenths away in qualifying of Red Bull. In China we were a few tenths away. It would be completely unrealistic to think what we’ve seen here is the updated picture of competitiveness. I think here Red Bull didn’t get the most out of their package.”

Teammate Piastri will get the same upgrade in two weeks as McLaren goes to Imola’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at full strength. Red Bull will still expect to be the benchmark team on pace, but McLaren’s competitiveness will be a major talking point going into the next race.

Fans who were growing bored of seeing Verstappen cruise to victories most weekends can take comfort in the fact McLaren seems to be on a strong development path and that there are big steps forward still to be found under the current regulations.

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