Mercedes returns to front of the F1 pack: 2024 Canadian, Spanish and Austrian GP report

What a difference a month makes. Mark Hughes takes us through the laps at Canada, Spain and Austria as a fourth team joins this season’s F1 winners’ list

Rain at Montreal circuit 2024

Tricky conditions at the Montreal circuit

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As McLaren and Lando Norris established themselves at the front, apparently ready at any track to challenge Red Bull and Max Verstappen on raw performance, so the differences in detail began to assume magnified significance. But for two split-second moments in Canada and Spain respectively Norris could – and should – have won consecutive grands prix. You cannot give such things away to Verstappen and Red Bull and go unpunished, even if theirs is no longer a dominant car, merely a very competitive one. Once Norris and McLaren got those details right, what then? There still remained the immovable object of Max Verstappen in a wheel-to-wheel contest. How might that pan out?

Canada, Max celebrates wins

In Canada, Max made it six wins out of nine.

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At the end of this three-race run, Verstappen had won seven of the season’s 11 races to date. But not since China in Round 4 has Red Bull had the sort of advantage over the field which was routine last year.

Coming off the back of the uneventful Monaco race, Canada was a welcome thrilling three-way scrap between Verstappen, Norris and George Russell’s Mercedes, livened up immensely by the weather.

“It all began to go wrong for Norris as Sargeant lost control on Turn 4”

The first two stints of the race were run with almost everyone on intermediates. Although it was just a steady drizzle as the race started, the track was wet enough from a previous downpour that it was worth a gamble on full wets for Haas. Kevin Magnussen rose as high as fourth in the early stages – “It was great. It was as if I was driving a Red Bull,” – before the wets overheated and his cameo was over. George Russell had set pole for Mercedes as the car seemed to be responding well to its new front wing. He led the early stages of the race too, with Verstappen in his wheel tracks. The Red Bull had matched Russell’s pole to the thousandth but the Mercedes driver had set the time first and was now looking quite comfortable holding off the world champion.

Lando Norris’s Austrian Grand Prix 2024

Lando Norris’s solid series of results halted in the Austrian Grand Prix

Norris in third was running a different sort of race in his McLaren, reminiscent of that of Imola, with a set-up and tyre-pressure choice to come into their own in the late part of the stints. After 10 laps he was 9sec adrift of Russell. Within a further nine laps he had picked off both Verstappen and Russell on consecutive laps! Not only that, but he proceeded to pull out 8sec on them in the next four laps. It was a spectacular performance and underlined the McLarens’ claim to being the fastest race day car, coming after the similar stellar pace in the races of Miami and Imola.

But it all began to go wrong for Norris as Logan Sargeant lost control of his Williams on the tricky surface at Turn 4. Race control was waiting to see if he could get restarted and it was only as it became apparent that he could not that the race came under a safety car. This was just as Norris was approaching the pit entry in the lead of the race. Had he pitted at that point, he’d likely have won. Instead, he continued as everyone behind him pitted for fresh intermediates. As the safety car then picked Norris up as the race leader, he was delayed in getting back to the pits and exited back in third, with Verstappen now leading from Russell. The Red Bull had passed the Mercedes when Russell had tried to resist Norris’s overtake a few laps earlier, only to be forced to take to the final chicane run-off, allowing Verstappen to zap him. Russell would never get that position back.

Into the second stint, with the drizzle still delaying the move onto slicks, Verstappen and Russell pulled out around 3.5-4sec. But as the shower passed and the track began getting close once more to slick territory, there were again decisions to be made on the pitwall. Pierre Gasly in the Alpine was the first to go for slicks. By his second lap he was faster than he’d been on the inters, this triggering Verstappen and Russell in. But the slicks would take a while to warm up on the cool, damp track and McLaren decided to leave Norris out for an extra couple of laps, attempting to overcut him back ahead. It got him ahead of Russell, but not quite Verstappen. The McLaren was marginally ahead as it rejoined the track but trying to accelerate on a patch of standing water, he was never in position to hold off the Red Bull, which was conclusively the quickest in the slick-tyred final stint.

George Russell takes the lead at the 2024 Spanish GP

George Russell ‘does a Fernando Alonso’ to take the lead at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix

“We stayed out because I was so quick at the end of that middle stint,” said Norris afterwards, “but I didn’t push early enough and I could have got past George one or two laps before the stops and closed the gap to Max to give myself a better opportunity of overcutting him.”

Russell briefly got past Norris but a moment through Turn 4 allowed the McLaren back ahead. A second safety car (Carlos Sainz had crashed his Ferrari and snagged Alex Albon’s Williams) saw the Mercs in the pits for fresh tyres and Russell had to fight his way past team-mate Lewis Hamilton as well as Oscar Piastri’s McLaren to regain his third position. It was an incident-packed day for him, one which had promised so much more. But Red Bull and Verstappen had won again on a day when they were merely competitive and had done so by avoiding the mistakes of their chief rivals. It felt at this point that they were winning through the habit of winning.

Milton, Lando Norris, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilotn on the podium, Barcelona

Milton, back on the podium, Barcelona

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Barcelona’s more demanding sequence of curves were expected to be prime Red Bull territory and while Verstappen was conclusively quickest through the two fast corners, Turn 9 and 14, Norris took a couple of hundredths out of him over the lap to snatch an against-the-odds pole for the McLaren. The outcome of the race was decided by the start, as Verstappen was marginally quicker away and able to get himself hooked inside Norris on the long run down to the first turn. Fourth-fastest qualifier Russell however was able to get a double tow from their squabble and swept around their outside to take the lead. “I was channelling my inner Fernando Alonso,” he said in reference to the Spaniard’s similar P4-to-P1 start in 2011.

It didn’t last for more than a couple of laps though, with Verstappen putting a clean DRS pass on the Mercedes going into the third lap. Russell didn’t resist it, being more concerned with ensuring he stayed on target with his tyre temperatures around this very high-deg circuit. With Russell then Norris’s cork in the bottle, Verstappen was able to pull out of undercut range without overworking his tyres, despite the aggressive first couple of laps. “There was no opportunity to do what Max did [in passing Russell],” said Norris. “By the time you get four to five laps in the tyres they are so hot that there’s no longer enough differentiation in tyre grip to try a move.” It just underlined the perfect execution of Verstappen’s race.

Verstappen leads Norris at the start of the Austrian GP

Verstappen leads Norris at the start of the Austrian GP

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Once Russell had pitted out of Norris’s way for the first stops, the McLaren caught the Red Bull at over 0.5sec per lap. Verstappen was brought in before Norris could get within range, illustrating the comfort zone for Verstappen that first stint had provided. Staying out an extra six laps longer than Verstappen would mean that Norris’s second stint grip advantage over the Red Bull on such a high-deg track would be considerable. But it also meant he was undercut by the earlier stopping Russell, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz. He had to overtake them on track before he could get to use his tyre advantage in chasing Verstappen down. Russell in particular put up a fierce resistance and their wheel-to-wheel dice lasted from Turn 2 to Turn 7.

By the time he had spent 13 laps getting past the cars which had undercut him, Norris was 8sec behind Verstappen but quickly halved that up to the second stops. He again went a few laps longer than Verstappen so as to increase his tyre advantage in the final stint, but that early cushion allowed Red Bull to control everything and Norris fell short by 2sec at the flag.

“Verstappen set a stunning pole, around 0.4sec faster than Norris”

Russell’s on-track battle with Norris had used up his tyre life and he was forced to pit with no more of the favoured medium tyre remaining and too many laps left to switch to the soft tyre. So forced to take the slower hard tyre – at just the time team-mate Hamilton swapped the other way around – he was easy picking for Hamilton who came through for his first podium of 2024.

Norris was hard on himself afterwards and spoke of how everything has to be perfect if you are going to take on Verstappen – and his start wasn’t. A few milliseconds out on the release of the second phase of the clutch, a stutter of wheelspin – and the race was lost.

But in the aggressive way Norris had moved across on Verstappen, forcing the Red Bull to have two wheels on the grass, we saw Norris’s recognition of how it was going to be now that he was regularly going wheel-to-wheel with a driver who has never given any quarter. That startline lean was Norris showing he was not prepared to back down – even though Max had made the inside. That would come to assume more significance in Austria where Verstappen and Norris were again duellists.

Verstappen and Norris at the Red Bull Ring GP

A battle between Verstappen and Norris at the Red Bull Ring would end in a collision. George Russell, below, took advantage for his second GP win


Verstappen won Saturday’s sprint race after Norris had briefly dive-bombed ahead into Turn 3. But his defence down to Turn 4 wasn’t good enough to prevent the Red Bull driver from retaliating – and in engaging in that fight, Norris left the door open for Piastri to get through. This lost the McLarens their DRS reach on the Red Bull and Verstappen eased away to a comfortable win. Later that afternoon Verstappen set a stunning pole lap in qualifying for the Grand Prix, around 0.4sec faster than Norris. It briefly looked like Red Bull’s early season performance domination had returned. The race showed that not to be so.

George Russel winner

Despite him feeling the car was not as well balanced as it had been in qualifying, it was all fairly routine for Verstappen in the first couple of stints, as he eased out a 6-7sec margin over Norris who always had a comfortable advantage over Russell. Late in the second stint of this two-stop race Verstappen was complaining over the radio that his tyres were finished and he should be brought in for fresh rubber, but the team believed otherwise. But he still had a 7sec margin as he and Norris pitted on the same lap. A sticking left wheel on the Red Bull used up 4sec of that 7sec margin, and Norris was now on new medium tyres, with Verstappen on used – and he flat-spotted one of them on his out-lap. Norris used the advantage of the rubber and within two laps was within Verstappen’s DRS range. He was going to have to fight his way past Verstappen. This was a first for him. He’d won in Miami because the safety car had sprung him past, he’d pressured him in Imola but never got quite close enough. But now, it was mano a mano.

With 16 laps to go Norris got a run up the hill to Turn 3 and with Verstappen hovering in the middle of the track, dived for the inside. As soon as he did, Verstappen edged that way too, forcing Norris to abandon the manoeuvre and switch to the outside to avoid contact. “He reacted to my move,” radioed-in Norris for the benefit of race control. “You’re not allowed to do that.” Indeed, that rule was written in response to Verstappen’s moves in 2018.

“Verstappen reacted to my move. You’re not allowed to do that ”

Norris had to be particularly careful as he’d already received a black and white warning flag for track limits. One more and he’d be getting a penalty. He regrouped and on lap 59 made a later T3 move on the brakes, so as to deny Verstappen the chance of moving across. This got him briefly ahead, but it had been so late he couldn’t get the car turned – and strayed into the run-off. Although he gave Verstappen the place back, as required, he’d now incurred a 5sec penalty. The dice continued regardless. Four laps later, Norris finally nailed the move, getting to the apex clearly ahead and staying within the track. Verstappen hung on around the outside – and was thereby obliged to take to the run-off as Norris used up the available track. Verstappen rejoined ahead – with Norris insisting he had to give the place back. That incident was never resolved because it was overtaken by a bigger one on the very next lap. Norris this time moved to the outside approach of Turn 3. Verstappen responded by moving to the left until Norris had no more track, at which point their rear wheels touched, puncturing Verstappen’s left-rear tyre and Norris’s right-rear.

Soon, Russell’s Mercedes passed the scene, with Piastri’s McLaren in hot pursuit, and shortly after that they passed the two crippled cars making their way to the pits. Russell took his second career grand prix win with Piastri and Sainz filling the podium.