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‘Inevitable’: Max Verstappen and Lando Norris’s first true F1 fight ends in tears

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Over the past three seasons, the combination of Max Verstappen and the Red Bull car has proven so potent that the rest of the Formula One field has only seriously challenged him on rare occasions.

And over the past few races, that has changed.

Lando Norris snared victory in Miami, closed late on Verstappen at Imola, and could have won in Canada and Spain, only for small errors to cost him. At no point had he truly raced Verstappen. Their friendship, sharing flights and padel courts, has stayed strong.

But on Sunday at the Austrian Grand Prix, the inevitable happened: Verstappen and Norris raced for real, raced hard, and it ended in a collision that will test the bonds between them.

“It’s just a bit reckless,” Norris said in the media pen after the race, downbeat from having a shot at victory snatched away. “It seemed like (it was) a little bit desperate from his side.”

GO DEEPER

George Russell wins the Austrian GP after Verstappen, Norris collision

How Red Bull put Verstappen in trouble

It was a crash that shouldn’t have been likely in the first place. Verstappen was in total control right up to his pit stop on Lap 51 of 71. His only slight bugbears were the traffic, the lack of blue flags at times as he lapped cars, and one slower pit stop.

But a second, terribly slow pit stop from Red Bull, the slickest and quickest crew in the F1 grid, put Verstappen in trouble. A stop that usually takes around two seconds took 6.5 seconds due to an issue getting the left-rear wheel nut on, wiping away the buffer to Norris.

Verstappen was calm in the media pen after the race, seemingly more disappointed in the execution by Red Bull than the clash itself. He called it an “awful” race and said the team “did a lot of things wrong today,” citing the strategy that left him battling traffic along with the “disaster” pit stops. “You give free lap time, six seconds over those two pit stops, then, of course, it’s a race again,” Verstappen said. “That’s why we put ourselves in that position.”

The added complication for Verstappen was that he had a lightly used set of medium tires instead of the fresh set Norris could run, giving the McLaren the grip advantage. As they weaved through traffic, Norris could easily sit within DRS range of Verstappen and start plotting where to make his move.

Aggression meets aggression

“When I need to, and the time comes to race him, I 100 percent will.”

Norris’s promise in an interview with The Athletic at Suzuka would always be tested at some point. And he quickly made good on it with his lunges on Verstappen.

On Lap 59, Norris went for his first attempt to overtake Verstappen at the top of the hill into Turn 3, a wide corner with plenty of room for a send up the inside. Norris briefly got ahead, only to run off the track and have Verstappen sweep back ahead on the run to Turn 4. Verstappen immediately alerted his engineer to the off-track move, noting that Norris had already been shown a black and white flag, a last warning for exceeding track limits. As a fourth strike, this would trigger a five-second penalty, only issued after Norris was out of the race.

Norris claimed he’d been pushed off by Verstappen and continued to attack undeterred. Verstappen complained on the radio that Norris was “dive-bombing,” and in the media pen, he described the moves as “just sending it up late and hoping the other guy stays out of it and you make the corner, which wasn’t the case.”

Norris kept the pressure on while the stewards investigated the track limits breach, going for another move at the same corner four laps later. This time, the Red Bull went off the track. He stayed ahead, prompting a radio complaint from Norris, who had already called out Verstappen for illegally moving under braking (moving laterally while slowing down). Verstappen said he was forced off. Classic gamesmanship from both.

And then, on Lap 64, the clash happened. Verstappen covered the inside and squeezed Norris, his car drifting slightly to the left. The side-on collision left both with damage and a long crawl back to the pits. Verstappen recovered to finish fifth, while Norris was forced to retire. Mercedes’ George Russell scooped up the win, followed by Oscar Piastri and Carlos Sainz.

Hard racing or over the limit?

Before his current dominant run, Verstappen made his name in F1 for a hard, no-holds-barred approach to wheel-to-wheel racing. When a driver fights him, there’s no surprise in what they get in return.

“I expect a tough battle against Max, I know what to expect,” Norris said. “I expect aggression and pushing the limits and that kind of thing. But all three times, he’s doing stuff that can easily cause an incident.” He added he was “in a way not surprised” by the clash but felt disappointed not to get “tough, fair, respectful, on-the-edge racing” in the battle for the win. “There’s times where I think he goes a little bit too far,” Norris added.

Verstappen denied crossing a line, claiming he hadn’t moved under braking in their battle. He noted Norris’s “dive-bombs” and called the stewards’ 10-second time penalty — they said Verstappen was “predominantly at fault” due to his shift to the left — “a bit severe.” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner described it as a racing incident. “Max is a hard racer, and they know that,” he said.

Verstappen is a hard racer, yes. That’s partly why this was always going to happen. He hasn’t been pushed like this since the peak of his fight against Hamilton in 2021. Now Norris and McLaren have a package capable of not just challenging Verstappen but beating him, prompting a return of these more aggressive on-track tactics, which are more likely to result in such incidents.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella felt the stewards should have shown Verstappen the black and white warning flag for moving under braking, as it would have made the Red Bull driver “much more prudent in closing the door on Lando.”

“It’s a great battle, but there’s no need to act so desperately,” Stella said. “There’s no need to think that the world is going to finish if the overtaking maneuver by the car behind is going to be completed.”

Was it inevitable? Horner used that word twice post-race. “You could see this building perhaps for a couple of races,” he said. “At some point, there was going to be something close between the two of them.”

Verstappen didn’t want to think that way. “It’s never how I thought about stuff,” he said. “But close battles, sometimes these things happen which you never want to happen.”

Will Norris and Verstappen clear the air?

The Austria clash is a flash point in the competitive and personal relationship between Norris and Verstappen, who look a step ahead of the rest of the pack in F1 right now, as seen so plainly in Sunday’s race.

The pair have shared many cool-down rooms and press conferences in the last 12 months, regularly joking and bantering. Now, there’s a tension that showed little sign of cooling in the heat of the immediate aftermath of the collision. Norris wasn’t interested in being the one to extend an olive branch or look to clear the air. “It’s not for me to say,” he said. “It’s for him to say.”

Verstappen said there’d be a chance for them to talk, but it was “not the right moment,” and it was “better to cool down.” He said they had already not planned to travel back together to Monaco, as they’ve done after other races this season.

Verstappen said he hoped it wouldn’t damage their relationship. “We’re all racing drivers, of course you don’t want to crash into each other,” he said. “When you’re fighting for the lead, it’s always tough battles. It happened today. It’s always a shame. I’m annoyed, he’s annoyed. I think that’s fair.”

Verstappen is right that there will be a right moment for reconciliation. You can already predict the shared Instagram post of the two together smiling, a sign to the world that everything is OK. Friends again.

Yet as long as the margins between Norris and Verstappen remain so close on the track and as we see such intense battles more often, their dynamic will continue to be tested.

Which, after so long without that kind of competitive edge, is a thrilling prospect for F1.

(Lead image: Rudy Carezzevoli, ERWIN SCHERIAU/APA/AFP via Getty Images)

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