MPH: McLaren's found its 'happy place'. Will it now break Red Bull's dominance?


The quickest F1 car in Miami was not a Red Bull. Lando Norris's upgraded McLaren was demonstrably quickest in the race, but will the same be said for the rest of the season? asks Mark Hughes

Max Verstappen Lando Norris 2024 Miami Grand Prix

Could Lando Norris and Max Verstappen square off for the rest of 2024?

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Lando Norris’s Miami Grand Prix victory in the upgraded McLaren has understandably got many asking if we could possibly have a serious competition in the remainder of the season rather than a continuation of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull domination.

How representative was that victory given that a) Norris took the lead through the lucky timing of the safety car, after Verstappen (and everyone else) had pitted but before he had and b) Verstappen had damaged the floor of his car on lap 21 after hitting a bollard?

Well, there was a three-lap sequence between Sergio Perez pitting out of Norris’s way and before Verstappen hit the bollard. Three laps where he had both clear air and had no reason to be holding back and both were on the same medium compound tyres on which they’d started the race.

In those three laps Norris took 0.4sec out of Verstappen.

Max Verstappen trails Lando Norris at the 2024 Miami Grand Prix

Lando extends his advantage

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This may well have been because Verstappen’s tyres were suffering more than Norris’s at this stage of the race – for on the very next lap after hitting the bollard Verstappen was reporting they were beginning to go. Norris by contrast was reporting all was good, his tyres were fine and he was pushing the team to keep him out. On his old medium tyres he was lapping around a quarter-second faster than Verstappen on his new hards. That was of course Verstappen with a damaged floor. But compare Norris to the Ferraris or Perez on their new rubber – and he was faster by an even greater margin.

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It was that combination of searing pace and lower tyre consumption which made the McLaren look so good. It was that combination which meant he hadn’t yet pitted when the safety car came out and his rivals all had.

Looking at the respective on-boards of Verstappen and Norris even before the bollard incident, the McLaren is visibly a nicer drive. Verstappen is having to wrestle with the car on entry, particularly through Turn 7-8. But the McLaren is also surer-footed on entry to Turns 1, 11 and 17, the rear helping Norris to float the car to the apex in places where Verstappen is still manhandling the steering. Seeing this comparison it’s easy to understand why the McLaren was taking so much less energy out of its tyres. Its progressive rotation allowed Norris to achieve a beautiful fluidity and flow.

Verstappen was told by his engineer of the lap times Norris was pumping out on his old mediums. He later described them as ‘insane’ and acknowledged that he could not have matched them, even without damage.

Max Verstappen Red Bull

Max Verstappen pilots ailing Red Bull in Miami

Red Bull

There’s little doubt that Norris’s McLaren was the fastest car in the race. Had it started at the front, it would likely have stayed there. But it had qualified only fifth, 0.35sec slower than Verstappen’s pole. Qualifying was on the soft tyre, whereas pretty much everyone’s race was done on the medium/hard combination. The McLaren did not like the soft tyre, but absolutely flew on the medium and hard. Hence the contrast between its competitiveness in qualifying and the race.

In sprint qualifying on Friday, with everyone required to do SQ1 and SQ2 on the medium and SQ3 on the soft, Norris was respectively P1, P1 and P9, (his medium time in SQ2 faster than Verstappen’s soft-tyred pole in SQ3). He’d got the car better attuned to the soft by GP qualifying a day later but only to the tune of that 0.35sec deficit. It could well be that the set-up which worked against it on the soft was what brought it its advantage on the harder tyres. The McLaren’s understeer on the soft was replaced by that nice progressive rotation. In the race Verstappen was reporting oversteer in the slower corners and understeer in the faster ones. On the softs in qualifying it had less slow corner understeer than the McLaren.

What we seemed to be witnessing at Miami was a Red Bull not quite in its sweet spot against a new McLaren which, in the race at least, was absolutely in its happy place. Although Red Bull still qualified on pole, its advantage over almost every other car was smaller than its seasonal average up to that point. So how might that translate to subsequent races? That is the big intrigue. Especially so as Ferrari has been making very positive noises about the upgrade which will be making its debut at Imola next weekend.

Last weekend Verstappen had just one upgraded McLaren to worry about. Next time out there will be two, plus two upgraded Ferraris. Has Norris just broken the dam around the Verstappen dominance? Or was it just a freak of circumstance?