When did Lando Norris really lose the Imola victory? The analysis

“One more lap,” was Lando Norris’ prayer in the cockpit. It remained unfulfilled when he finished the Formula 1 race in Imola in second place, seven tenths behind Max Verstappen. Of course not, after all a Grand Prix has a fixed distance. But there are ways and means to get one more round. Or not to get into this situation at all. Did McLaren and Norris do something wrong? The analysis breaks down three factors.

Factor 1: How does Lando Norris get another round?

Extend a Formula 1 race by one lap? It does not work. Extend the second stint by one lap? Of course it works! Simple mathematics provides a simple answer to this question. The competition had already observed on Friday that McLaren was able to keep the hard tires alive very well. Norris pulled him over after lap 22 of the race. How do you get another round? By stopping on lap 21.

But there are good reasons for lap 22. “Verstappen controlled the first stint, we had to look in the mirror,” says McLaren team boss Andrea Stella. The Red Bull was the fastest car on the starting medium. Rather, Norris was within reach of an undercut from third-placed Charles Leclerc. When Verstappen drove away, McLaren made preventing it a priority.

When this danger became acute, Sergio Perez, who was far behind with Hard on an alternative strategy, was still in the pit stop window. A delicate situation, Stella knows: “If Leclerc stops on this route and catches Perez in the DRS zone, he will fly past and create the undercut.”

On top of that, McLaren had more problems than expected on the medium and observed that even the hard starters didn’t look particularly good over the distance. They therefore developed an aversion to the idea of ​​stopping early and driving a second stint that was too long. With all of these factors in mind, the McLaren strategists carefully and after consulting with the driver chose lap 22 as the earliest sensible time.

Factor 2: What does Charles Leclerc’s mistake have to do with the victory?

After the stop, Norris was asked on the radio to bring the hard drive into the work window as gently as possible. This was very small in Imola, and as soon as the tires overheated, serious problems threatened. “It was very tactical from his position,” Stella praises his driver. “He did a good job saving the tires for the long second stint.”

Only Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari didn’t have any major problems with the working window at the beginning and started to put pressure on after a few laps. “We tuned the car for cooler temperatures,” says Norris, explaining the long period of getting used to it. So Leclerc came into his DRS window and didn’t let up. Only a slip in the Alta variant gave Norris some breathing room on lap 47. He promptly no longer had to look backwards and began to catch up with Verstappen.

However, this Leclerc interlude cannot be pinpointed as the sole reason why Norris took so long to get going. He was very busy driving during that time. His McLaren had the pace with the hard tires, but not the balance to chase Max Verstappen. Norris fought against a too strong front axle with the setup options – brake balance, differential settings – adjustable from the cockpit: “I changed practically all of my switches to help the rear tires.”

That took a good 15 laps. As soon as he had it under control, from lap 40 onwards he found himself lapped by five people. “Swirled air seemed to be a big factor; every time you lapped you lost pace,” says Andrea Stella. It’s no surprise that Verstappen’s tire problems only really began when he passed this lapping group. The Red Bull struggled to maintain the core temperature of the hard tire and increasing slipping made matters worse.

It wasn’t until lap 50 that everything came together for Norris. The lapped people were gone, the McLaren handling was fine, there was no more pressure from Leclerc, the tires recovered, Verstappen’s problems increased. Only there were now less than 15 laps left until the end of the race.

Would another round of Norris have helped at all?

The sum ensures the late catch-up. From that point of view, there were definitely several chances of somehow finding this “one round”. But the development of Norris’s gap to Verstappen highlights a final problem. It is very difficult to overtake in Imola. Clearly evident from the moment Norris closed within two seconds of Verstappen for the first time. And then didn’t come any closer.

This is exactly the distance at which you can already feel the swirling air, but have no DRS advantage. “I had problems for a few laps, but as soon as I understood how I had to drive, I was able to get closer,” counters Norris. Only: That was probably not enough of a pace advantage to have a chance of overtaking in Imola. Who knows, says Norris: “With one more lap he would have at least had to defend in Turn 1, maybe something would have come of it.”

Factor 3: What does Nico Hülkenberg’s slipstream have to do with the victory?

Realistically speaking, McLaren still had no chance in the race. The “racing machine” Max Verstappen, as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner later called him, ultimately made the difference all weekend. Although in retrospect the RB20 wasn’t the best car. Victory despite tire problems that were difficult to control, but above all a narrow pole. The latter turned out to be really crucial.

On paper, McLaren had a tenth advantage over Verstappen on Saturday. However, he came to terms with it Nico Hülkenberg: “We were slipstream buddies. Already in Q2 and Q3. I gave him a slipstream until Turn 17, he gave me one until Turn 2.” It was this slipstream that pulled Verstappen past Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris onto pole.

The McLaren pit also failed to warn Piastri about traffic and gave him three penalty places. If it were just a matter of pace, and if Verstappen had been on the second row, McLaren would almost certainly have won. Because even if the Red Bull was better at the start of the race, the advantage was less than half a second despite the free ride. That’s definitely not enough for an overtaking maneuver.

So if Verstappen had been stuck behind Piastri and Norris after the start, that would probably have been it for him. He could stick with it, but with an undercut he would have gotten at most one of the two. And in the second stint, the problems on the hard tire in the turbulent air behind a hypothetically leading Piastri or Norris would have been even worse. In that case, the McLaren victory might have gone to Piastri. Who drove the better qualifying.

Verstappen wobbles! Did Leclerc cost Norris victory? (09:56 mins)

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