Red Bull was on the ropes at Imola but its F1 reign isn't over... yet


2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix analysis: Max Verstappen had his work cut out keeping Lando Norris and his pacy McLaren at bay in Imola, writes Mark Hughes. It may not be the end of his dominant run yet, though

Max Verstappen ahead of Lando Norris in the 2024 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola

Norris in pursuit of Verstappen at Imola

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

Max Verstappen’s Imola victory was not one of those comfortable nailed-on ones we’ve seen so often in the last few years. It was a struggle. It required a major change between Friday and Saturday. It required Verstappen to be at his tenacious best in the late stages of the race to hold off the flying McLaren of Lando Norris.

Coming after Norris’s Miami victory, does this mean Red Bull’s run is coming to an end? Not so fast there. No, probably not yet. Not quite.

Red Bull was at its ropiest this weekend and even under those circumstances against heavily updated cars from Ferrari and McLaren, it could rely on Verstappen to overcome the shortfall.

Things the Red Bull doesn’t like: a front-limited circuit (Imola, Melbourne). A circuit demanding bigger ride heights (Imola, Singapore). That put the RB20 out of its comfort zone coming into the weekend and maybe that pre-knowledge played its part in the team arriving here with a set-up based around a big rear wing. It was paranoid about the tyre graining which can so easily trip you up here.

Turns out graining wasn’t an issue, perhaps helped by the super sunny weather of the weekend. What was an issue for Red Bull was a horrible balance on Friday, one which required test driver Sebastien Buemi’s 10-hour stint in the simulator through Friday night. This gave the team an entirely new aero set up into Saturday, based around a much lower downforce rear wing. Finally, it was fast. Fastish anyway. Fast enough for Verstappen to scrape pole a few hundredths faster than the McLarens of Oscar Piastri and Norris and a further tenth faster than Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari. Piastri was penalised three grid places for impeding, promoting Norris to the front row.

The McLaren, which had won Miami largely thanks to its great combination of pace and tyre usage, arrived here with a smaller rear wing than Red Bull and a front wing with a downforce-boosting gurney flap. They went up a little on rear wing from Saturday onwards but still the thing was beautifully balanced.

McLaren of Lando Norris ju,ps over kerb at Imola during 2024 F1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

McLaren was in the zone for Norris to exploit its pace


So the race was poised between two cars of very similar one-lap pace, but one with a known good tyre behaviour (backed up by the long runs of Friday in which Piastri was comfortably fastest) versus one with question marks around how it would treat the rubber.

The first stint suggested it was no contest. Verstappen won the start and pulled away, just like this was any typical race of the last two or three years. Norris couldn’t hang on and was working on just keeping Leclerc out of undercut range as the pitstop window opened.

But Verstappen had lost grip from his front-left tyre just before he’d been pitted on lap 24. It wasn’t an immediate drama for he had a 6sec lead – and he’d get the mediums replaced now by the hard on which to do the remaining 39 laps.

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The first half of the second stint looked just like the end of the first. Verstappen maintaining his cushion, Leclerc threatening but not quite getting on terms with Norris. A little way behind, McLaren had undercut Piastri past Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and further back again the two Mercedes were in a no man’s land of their own. Sergio Perez could be of no help to Verstappen, having qualified outside the top 10, ran the first stint on the hard (a tyre which proved trickier than everyone expected) and then made no impact upon the Mercs.

That’s how it all looked set. Then Verstappen lost enough tread on his front tyres that they began to rapidly lose temperature. All he felt was the loss of front grip and maybe if he’d realised the nature of the problem he could have pushed harder rather than trying to do the right thing by being easy on them. Once they’ve cooled and the tread is thin, they stay cool. Hence Norris began eating dramatically into that lead and the last dozen laps were a dog fight, with Norris desperately trying to get within 1sec of the Red Bull at the DRS detection point just after Variante Alta – and Verstappen doing everything he could to prevent that.

Just as it seemed Norris had spent his rubber advantage in the chase, so the embers of the battle were re-lit as Verstappen had to switch to a tamer power unit mode in order to recharge the battery he’d just emptied in defending from Norris. Lando made one last bid to get within the DRS detection point just after Variante Alta, Verstappen could see him coming, knew what he would be trying to do – and so backed off early before the corner, losing Norris the advantage of momentum.

Max Verstappen and Lando Norris on track at Imola in front of a stand full of Ferrari fans

Even the tifosi were fired up over the McLaren vs Red Bull lead battle

Peter Fox/F1 via Getty Images

Would Norris have done anything different in hindsight? “Yeah, I would probably take out four holes of front wing and do the same again. Like Max said, once the tyres are where they are, you can’t actually do a lot. We were expecting it to be a little bit colder today than what it was. So we kind of set up the car more for colder conditions rather than hot. And I think I paid the price in general. So that’s why I had to do so much of a [gentle] introduction to the tyres and kind of bring them up so gently and look after them. Because if I didn’t, I just would have fallen off a cliff like the others did. So my only chance was to drive my race. And that meant being under pressure from Charles for more laps than I would have liked. But as soon as I kind of cleared the traffic and got back into my own rhythm, then I felt good with the car. The tyres kind of came back to me and I could push and I was happy. So from then on, the pace was amazing. And so it’s a good sign.”

It is indeed. For the sake of a competitive season.