Lando Norris lamenting what could have been at Spanish Grand Prix

You could feel the pain and disappointment with every answer, every gesture, and every word.

Lando Norris believes his second Formula 1 victory was there for the taking Sunday in Barcelona, but he let it slip through his grasp.

Norris began Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix in P1, thanks to a masterful final lap during Saturday’s qualifying session that was just fast enough to snatch pole position from his friend and rival Max Verstappen. It was a lap that Norris himself described as both “perfect,” and “balls out.”

But in a flash Sunday, that slim lead over Verstappen evaporated. The Red Bull driver got off to a quicker start off the line and Norris was shuffled back to P2 almost immediately. He lost another spot soon thereafter, as George Russell pulled off a masterful double overtake to pass both Norris and Verstappen, sliding Norris back to third.

The McLaren driver was forced into comeback mode and nearly pulled it off, closing an eight-second gap to Verstappen in P1 down to just under two seconds as the checkered flag flew. But as he told the story Sunday afternoon in Barcelona, it was a tale of a driver who believes he let his team down.

“The race, not good enough, simply because we should have won today,” began Norris in the post-race FIA Press Conference.

“I think we had the quickest car. But I just lost it at the start, you know, and then I couldn’t get past George for the first stint. I think we were quite easily best car out there today,” continued Norris. “I just didn’t do a good enough job off the line. And then that one thing cost me everything. So from Turn 2 onwards, 10 out of 10, I don’t think I could have done much more. And I think as a team, we did the perfect strategy. And I was very happy with what we did. But yeah, the one part at the start, the 1% elsewhere wasn’t good enough.”

Norris faced one of the toughest challenges the F1 calendar offers, as the run from the start/finish line to Turn 1 in Barcelona is the longest the drivers face all year. That meant Verstappen was positioned to get a big run off the line into Turn 1, and Norris was tasked with fending the champion off.

As Norris described the start, his initial launch was good, but the “second phase” of the race was where it went wrong.

“No, I mean, my initial launch, I think, was better than Max. The second phase, the drive out, was not as good. I don’t know. I don’t know anything more than that, apart from Max got alongside me,” described Norris. “And let’s say, if George wasn’t there, I think I still could have kept on to first around Turn 1.

“But George had a run on both of us, so even if my start was one or two [meters] better, which I think was all I probably could have done, just the long run down to Turn 1, the slipstream from the Mercedes, on both Max and myself, was more than anything that I could have done. I almost think George would have led no matter what, even if my start was two [meters] better.

“In some ways, that’s what happens in Barcelona. George got a good start and I couldn’t do anything about that. I settled in. I had to take third in Turn 2 because if I break two metres later, I think I would have taken everyone out with me. I made the correct decision of backing out and letting George have it. I don’t know. I need to sit down with my engineers and talk.”

Norris’ anguish mirrored comments he made in Montreal when he also finished second behind Verstappen. Only this time, according to the driver, he truly had the fastest car.

But not the corresponding win to show for it.

“We were definitely not the quickest car in Montreal. Mercedes was easily the quickest car. But today, we were the quickest. We had the best car. I had the best car out there,” said Norris. “And I didn’t [maximize] it. The start’s down to me. doing what I get told and executing that. And without that, or with a good start, we easily should have won.”

Despite Norris’ anguish at the result and his self-perceived failure at winning Sunday, he began to look ahead to Austria, a track that has been good to him in the past.

“I mean, I’m confident. every weekend we go into now, the car’s performing extremely well. We’re always there or thereabouts within a couple of tenths of pole, and that’s all we can ask for,” concluded Norris. “I think we need to bring something a little bit more just to make our life a bit easier. It’s close, and now we have, what, four teams who I think can easily fight for pole positions and fight for wins, potentially. So it’s a very different layout again. High speed, I think we have a bit to work on, comparing to Red Bull. Red Bull seem definitely a bit higher, better in high speed corners than we are. Potentially we’re lacking a touch in that area but the rest of it is strong.

“It’s been one of my best tracks in terms of my own competitiveness and my most successful tracks so excited to see all the papaya and the grandstands and have a good weekend.”

Norris may be feeling despair at the moment, lamenting a win that got away from him. But his second-place finish saw him move to second in the Drivers’ Championship, passing Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc in the standings.

It might not be enough to ease the pain he felt Sunday, but it is certainly another step forward for Norris.

And the driver’s anguish perhaps illustrates the bigger story of the 2024 Formula 1 season. A year ago finishing within two seconds of Verstappen was cause for celebration. Consider some of what Norris said following the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix when he finished second to Verstappen, almost 20 seconds off the Red Bull driver’s pace.

“No, I was I was expecting him to probably lap us two or three times! And he didn’t, so… I mean, I was expecting probably a bigger gap. I think we all were, as a team. And I think it would have been a lot closer, I lost eight or 10 seconds behind Pérez under the [Virtual Safety Car],” said Norris at the FIA Press Conference in Suzuka a season ago.

“I don’t know how hard Max was really pushing. I’m sure he could have gone a bit quicker if he wanted to,” added Norris last year in Japan. “But to be only 19 seconds behind, he didn’t get a free pit-stop, which was lovely. And, yeah, I think it’s just signs of our progress.”

That big gap from a year ago is now down to seconds. Instead of wanting another car to challenge Verstappen, as Will Buxton eloquently stated a few weeks ago, now drivers just want another lap or two. The field has tightened behind Verstappen.

And Norris, his personal anguish aside, is now at the front of that chasing pack.

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