‘Norris win a popular one as end-of-empire feeling swirls around Red Bull’

Home » ‘Norris win a popular one as end-of-empire feeling swirls around Red Bull’

Lando Norris had not even taken his helmet off after securing his maiden Formula 1 victory at the Miami Grand Prix before the great and good of the sport began taking turns to congratulate him.

Max Verstappen, the man who Norris has become the first to beat in a straight fight this year, was the first. He was quickly followed by third-place man Charles Leclerc, two-time champion Fernando Alonso, Mercedes’ George Russell and more.

By the end of the afternoon, the list was long. This was a popular victory for a popular driver but also one that everyone recognised had been too long in coming, and was well deserved.

Heading into the Miami weekend, he held the all-time record for podium finishes without a win. Inevitably, then, there were those who were beginning to utter doubts as to whether Norris would ever stand on the top step. But only people who didn’t properly recognise Norris’ qualities doubted him.

“I wasn’t worried,” Norris said, “and I knew my time was coming.”

Norris is the son of a millionaire stock market trader. But his talent has been obvious from a very early age, and the closer he got to F1 through his junior career, the more it became obvious he was marked out for great things.

Aged 18, early in 2018, Norris was team-mate to Alonso at the Daytona 24 Hours sportscar race. It was hardly the point of their appearance, but Norris set himself a private target of leaving the event with a faster lap time than Alonso – and did it.

At the time, Norris was McLaren’s F1 reserve driver and Alonso was racing for them. Later that year, after McLaren had said they would promote Norris from reserve driver to their race team for the 2019 season, the Briton generated a few laughs in a wet practice session at the US Grand Prix in Austin by playing the boy and taking Alonso a cuppa while everyone waited for the track to dry.

But it did not take long once he was into a full-time F1 seat for Norris to shed the image of an apprentice. He went toe-to-toe with Carlos Sainz in their two seasons together and gave nothing away.

He came close to a win in Russia in 2021, when he put the McLaren on pole and led most of the race confidently before mistakenly choosing to stay out on dry-weather slicks when it rained late on.

Sainz left for Ferrari at the end of 2020 and was replaced by Daniel Ricciardo, then a seven-time race winner for Red Bull.

The talk before the partnership started was of how the pressure was all on Norris to prove he could match up. But from the off it was Norris who was the quicker driver.

When McLaren finally achieved the win that cemented their re-emergence as a front-running team after a few difficult years, it was Ricciardo who took it, on a rare strong weekend in Monza. Norris was quicker, but he’d qualified a place behind.

And when Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen crashed out together and left the McLarens running one-two, Norris dutifully followed team orders not to fight with his team-mate.

Red Bull’s domination of the past three years had made a win look far away, especially after McLaren slipped back in 2022 and early 2023. But since a change of leadership heading into 2023, the team have been on a rapid upward trajectory, and by the second half of last year had emerged as one of the leading challengers to Red Bull.

Their progress in the past year can be seen by the fact that Norris and his team-mate Oscar Piastri qualified 16th and 19th in Miami in 2023. This year, they arrived at the race with an upgrade they hoped would bring them closer to Red Bull.

Norris had had a scrappy weekend until the grand prix. But once clear of Sergio Perez’s Red Bull in the first stint, he was the quickest guy on track. He ran long, and an opportunely timed safety car vaulted him into the lead, and he had more than enough pace at the restart to pull away from Verstappen, albeit that Red Bull said the car had been damaged when the Dutchman hit a bollard just before his pit stop.

“I took it easy (at the start),” Norris said. “I could see Max and when you can see Max, there is hope.

“I knew there would be opportunities. Everyone boxed (pitted) ahead of me and I was able to use all the pace I had and that turned into that little bit of luck. Sometimes you have to have a bit of luck on your side but I will take it happily.”

The win augurs well for McLaren for the rest of the year. They won’t expect to challenge Verstappen regularly, But this, the latest in a line of upgrades dating back to last summer, confirms their strong trajectory under team principal Andrea Stella, who has been a revelation since he was promoted from performance director over the winter of 2022-23.

“I said at the beginning of the year we could win races,” Norris said. “A lot of people doubted that but I was confident. The team have done an amazing job. We weren’t even in Q2 last year; the fact we have won a race shows the team have done an insane job to go from there to where we are today.”

‘Many feel Red Bull giving impression that they are slowly imploding’

There was a certain symbolism to the fact that the first race this season in which Verstappen has been beaten in a straight fight was at the event after it was announced that Adrian Newey was leaving Red Bull.

And it only served to emphasise a certain end-of-the-empire feeling swirling around Red Bull.

The weekend at the Hard Rock Stadium was dominated by Newey, and the turmoil at Red Bull, which many in F1 feel is giving every impression of a team slowly imploding.

Newey’s decision to leave was partly influenced by the controversy surrounding team principal Christian Horner, who has been accused of sexual harassment and coercive, controlling behaviour by a female employee.

Horner denies the allegations, and has been cleared by one internal investigation. Another is ongoing after the complainant appealed, and while that is also expected to end with the same result, there will be further developments as time goes by.

This was not Newey’s only concern. He has also been annoyed by what he perceives as attempts by certain figures in the team to publicly play down his influence in their current success, while he considers that the 2022 RB18 car that laid the foundations for the team’s success – the 2023 and 2024 cars are evolutions of it – was very much his design.

“(I’ve been considering leaving for) a little while now, if I’m honest,” he told Sky Sports in his only on-the-record interview in Miami.

“I guess over the winter a little bit and then as events have unfolded this year I thought I’m in a very lucky position where I don’t need to work to live.

“I work because I enjoy it. I just felt that now was a good time to step back and take a bit of a break and take stock of life, and go travelling a bit.”

Horner was asked after the race whether he should consider his position in the light of Newey’s decision. He deflected the question and insisted the team were well set for the future.

Other senior figures at Red Bull are known to be unsettled. McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown predicted that Newey would not be the last to leave, while Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff confirmed he was waiting on deciding on his 2025 driver line-up because “we want to take our time, see where Max’s thinking goes”.

Verstappen is contracted to Red Bull to the end of 2028. But he admitted he would have “preferred” Newey to stay and is known to have been unsettled by the Horner situation.

The big question is whether he is unsettled enough to leave. This is considered unlikely by senior sources in time for next season but a real possibility for 2026, when F1’s rules change for both engines and chassis.

Verstappen and his management are said to have concerns as to whether Red Bull’s new engine arm will be able to compete with the car manufacturers who will be its opposition.

If Verstappen wants to go, he can do so whenever he wants.

He has a contractual arrangement with Red Bull that means that if motorsport adviser Helmut Marko leaves, so can Verstappen.

A dispute between Marko and Horner is part of the power struggle at Red Bull that has broken out into the open since the Horner allegations.

Senior sources have told BBC Sport that Marko has promised Verstappen that he will do whatever he wants – so if Verstappen wants to leave, Marko will make it possible by quitting.

And if Verstappen follows Newey out of the door, Red Bull will have lost the greatest designer in F1 history and the driver most in F1 consider to be the best on the grid right now.

All dominant teams run out of steam in the end. The end of this Red Bull era will not be this year, but in the circumstances it’s not hard to imagine how it could come about.

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