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For Lando Norris, One Win Is No Longer Enough

Second placed Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia-Romagna.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

When asked last week about if he would rather win by 20 seconds or in a close wheel-to-wheel race, Max Verstappen answered, with expected honesty, "At least 20 seconds!" For a team as dominant as Red Bull is, that does make sense: If Verstappen isn't winning by a large margin, then something must be going wrong. By that definition, the past two races have been a substantial failure: First, Lando Norris and McLaren's shiny new upgrade package earned a win in Miami, and this very Sunday, Norris and McLaren were less than a second off from a back-to-back win at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Imola.

You can often trace how hard a driver is pushing to win by how toxic they're getting over the radio; by that indication, both Norris and Verstappen were in fine form this weekend. At the start of the race, when almost every driver was on medium tires and Verstappen had sailed off to a comfortable lead, it looked as though McLaren would be competing with Ferrari for the lower podium spots. Norris's race engineer, Will Joseph, informed Norris that they were using the tires less than everyone else. In turn, Norris informed Joseph that, well, he didn't have any pace. The subsequent time Norris's radio was revealed on the F1 TV broadcast, Norris first hit Joseph's attempted update with a schoolteacher-esque response of, "Speak up."

It doesn't make for pleasant listening, but this is not a slight against Norris's character—the "pushing to win = toxic" corollary doesn't even go the other way, making radio snippiness a characteristic of all Formula 1 drivers, backmarkers included. It is, however, evidence of a recalibration in expectation that has taken place in the McLaren garage. For a very long time, Norris was desperately trying to shed his record for most podiums without a race win; all he needed was one win, just one. But now that he got his first, who even cares about a podium? Norris doesn't need much more practice at his champagne spike celebration, and he did not come into this race expecting to be fighting with the Ferraris for second on the podium; he came in hungry for another win that, at that point, looked far out of reach.

Then Charles Leclerc, to the heartbreak of the Tifosi, ran off into the grass on lap 48 of the race and gave Norris some room to breathe. And once Norris had room to breathe, both McLaren and Red Bull realized that Norris was lapping quicker and quicker than Verstappen was in the Red Bull. On lap 48, Norris was over six seconds behind Verstappen. By lap 51, Norris was within five, and if you didn't yet feel the danger looming with twelve laps to go, Verstappen did. When his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, came on the radio to inform him, "The main losses to Lando are turn two and turn six," Verstappen said without a hint of humor, "Yeah, my tires don't work, mate."

"Just information Max, that's all," Lambiase said.

"Yeah," Verstappen said, "same for me."

It was not a wheel-to-wheel battle between Norris and Verstappen in the final ten laps of the race, but it was a close fight in the second-best tension that F1 has to offer: a closing gap on the timing screen while the lap count ticked up; two ticking bombs. Joseph informed Norris, "Verstappen is complaining about—" and Norris said, in the tone of someone who was definitely all good, "I see, I see, I see, I see. All good, I'm pushing, mate."

Norris, who was pushing hard enough that he nearly rode into the gravel at turns five and six, was only one of Verstappen's problems. Verstappen already had a black-and-white flag for track limits; if he made one slip up under pressure, he would be saddled with a five-second time penalty. Self-consciousness is a curse, and in that light, of course any driver would want to be 20 seconds ahead, where being briefly stuck behind a backmarker would yield no concern, rather than a snapped response over the radio of, "Can he let me by any more stupid!"

No matter. Whatever delay the blue flag caused, it wasn't enough. Norris got within DRS range of Verstappen on the final lap of the race, but it was too late. If he had one more lap—just one more lap!—then he would've had a fair shot, and Norris was well aware of that fact. As he proceeded to parc fermé after the race finished, Norris remarked over the radio, "It's frustrating not to win. It feels quite a bit more painful now."

But if there's any consolation for Norris and McLaren as a whole, it's that Verstappen hardly seemed overjoyed by the victory either. It was hard-won, more a relief rather than a triumph: a far cry from the Max Verstappen wins earlier on in the season. Unlike last year, when McLaren had their upgrade-package-into-resurgence arc in July, the car is a genuine race win threat with seventeen races yet to go. The past few years have cautioned against optimism when it comes to dethroning Red Bull, but then again, look at what expectation does to you—give a driver a taste of victory, and they'll only want it more.

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