Did Norris need just one more lap at Imola? That we're asking says it all

F1

McLaren had Red Bull on the run again, and Imola was buzzing. Plus — in Chris Medland's Emilia Romagna Grand Prix diary — the welcome return of gravel traps; more 2025 F1 rumours and why Senna isn't about to be forgotten

Max Verstappen sprays Lando Norris with champagne on the podium after 2024 F1 Emilia Romagna GP

Norris thought he could have passed Verstappen if the race had been a lap longer

Lars Baron/Getty via Red Bull

Red Bull didn’t have it all its own way throughout the Imola weekend, even if it was another Max Verstappen pole and victory. But among multiple talking points, the circuit came in for a lot of praise as Ayrton Senna’s memory was celebrated.

 

McLaren pressure brings out the best in Verstappen

Let’s call it as it is and just say the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was not great for the first 40 laps of that race. Perhaps even longer, it was a pretty dull affair as overtaking proved difficult and drivers tried to keep a handle on tyre degradation.

But then it took on an entirely different complexion as Lando Norris started closing in and, for once, Verstappen had no answer.

Norris said afterwards he was praying for one more lap before he crossed the line 0.7sec behind Verstappen, and the championship leader also admitted he had not been able to control the pace or keep Norris at bay, and would have been vulnerable. McLaren believes the DRS opportunity and tyre differential would have given Norris a huge chance of making the move into Tamburello, but as Verstappen said so eloquently in Miami: “If my mum had balls, she would be my dad.”

Lando Norris follows Max Verstappen in 2024 F1 Emilia Romagna GP

The rare sight of a Red Bull on the run

Clive Rose/Getty Images

What the “if” does do is prove that McLaren has put itself in a position to challenge Red Bull with increasing regularity, and the excitement in the paddock afterwards was for more weekends where Verstappen will have a fight on his hands.

And it’s meant as a compliment to Verstappen, too, because he excelled with his back against the wall, taking pole position with a car that wasn’t the quickest on Saturday, and just holding on in a far from perfect RB20 on Sunday. That’s the difference that makes the best drivers special, and seeing them need to produce their best more often is only ever going to be a good thing.

 

More driver market movement

This could obviously be an entry every week this year, and might well be for a number of months yet, but there appeared to be a little more clarity around the driver market emerging in Imola.

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New names were surfacing being linked with certain seats, with a number of names cropping up in relation to a position at Haas, likely alongside Ollie Bearman. That said, after a strong FP1 and front-row qualifying performance in Formula 2, Bearman didn’t cover himself in glory at the end of his weekend when he stalled in the pitlane when leading early on and looking well-placed for a first victory of the season.

One name in the mix is Yuki Tsunoda, who appears to be a realistic option to join Ayao Komatsu’s team, as one of the younger but still experienced options that could help the Haas project over a number of years. Above him on the wishlist appear to be the two Alpine drivers of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, while Kevin Magnussen is very much at risk but not ruled out by Komatsu.

The way Haas has started the season has led to more interest from experienced names than expected, and it’s likely to move quickly once Carlos Sainz makes a decision on the Audi offer he has on the table.

Oliver Bearman in front of Haas F1 garage before practice session at 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Bearman has been linked to Haas and took part in FP1 session at Imola

Yuki Tsunoda on the grid at 2024 F1 Emilia Romagna GP

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For now, Sainz remains in waiting mode, as the majority of the grid are because Mercedes continues to eye up Max Verstappen, and it feels like the next few weeks could prove pivotal as the appeal process against the dismissal of the grievance against Christian Horner concludes. That’s likely to bring the Red Bull power struggle to the fore once again, and could accelerate any decisions on Verstappen’s future.

 

Gravel is king

I know it’s not as simple as taking this approach at every circuit on the calendar, but it was really refreshing to see the way the gravel trap changes at Imola only enhanced its challenge but also reduced the need for track limits penalties.

It was actually really frustrating to watch the Formula 2 qualifying session as multiple lap times were deleted for track limit infringements at the two Rivazzas, but they were later overturned as the stewards appeared to agree that the natural deterrent of the gravel – running right up to the exit kerb – was a better way of policing the situation.

Fernando Alonso follows Pierre Gasly in 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Gravel punished corner-cutters at Imola

Andreja Cencic/SOPA Images via Getty

There’s no ambiguity when you know there are no track limits being imposed on a track like this, because drivers are risking a big moment or losing significant time if they go beyond the kerb, and also are doing something remarkable if they run off but still post a competitive lap.

Imola had removed areas of concrete run-off in multiple corners and replaced them with gravel, extending it closer to the track to ensure there is no corner that has an easy get-out option. And it’s not just as a fan watching that it was more exciting, the drivers loved it too.

“Honestly, it’s just a fantastic track,” Max Verstappen said. “I wish we had 24 of those on the calendar. You know, we go to a lot of tracks that don’t really excite me. But this is unbelievable. In a qualifying lap, this is how it should be. There are a few old-school tracks that we have remaining on the calendar and they are always very exciting. And that’s also what I fell in love with when I started racing and watching F1. So yeah, we need more of those.”

 

Senna remains central

Sebastian Vettel in McLaren MP4-8 demonstration run at Imola

Sebastian Vettel drove Senna’s McLaren MP4/8 in an Imola demonstration run

Clive Rose/Getty Images

You could not escape the presence of Ayrton Senna at Imola this weekend. And some 30 years on from his death at this track, what felt most surprising is the impact he has had on the younger drivers still coming through the ranks.

Many of the current F1 grid didn’t even see Senna race, but they were all joined by multiple F2 and F3 drivers on a memorial run – organised by Sebastian Vettel – on Thursday night. Aptly, it absolutely poured down midway round the lap and for the majority of the run, leading Bianca Senna to say her uncle Ayrton “was definitely here” given the weather.

But I’ll admit when the top three in the F2 qualifying session were asked during the press conference what Senna meant to them, I felt the question was likely to be aimed at the wrong age group. How wrong I was.

Gabriel Bortoleto points to Senna S on his helmet

Bortoleto wore a Senna-inspired helmet

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

Gabriel Bortoleto is from Brazil and obviously has a huge affinity to Senna — running his logo and helmet colours on his lid as he took pole position — but Ollie Bearman in second place spoke of how his father had shown him so many videos and clips and really educated him on the three-time world champion. And then Isack Hadjar described Senna as the only idol he’s ever had.

Despite being born years after Senna’s legend was forged in F1, these drivers are part of a new generation still being inspired by the three-time World Champion.

One of the reasons Senna’s memory endures so strongly and he is still so heavily recognised all these years later is because he continues to inspire each new generation of racing drivers.

 

A thawing of relations within the governing bodies

There have been numerous occasions over the past two and a half years where FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali have not seen eye-to-eye. The relationship between the two has been extremely strained at times, with F1 and the FIA often looking to score points off the other.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem and Stefano Domenicali on F1 grid at 2024 Miami Grand Prix

Ben Sulayem with Domenicali in Miami, as word of a rapprochement spreads

Clive Rose/F1 via Getty Images

But in Imola sources suggested the working relationship has improved noticeably in recent months, with both parties focused on bigger picture issues within the sport heading into the next set of regulations and a negotiating period for the new Concorde Agreement.

How long it lasts remains to be seen, but it is always going to help grand prix racing moving forward if both the FIA and F1 are largely on the same page.