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Opinion
Formula 1 Austrian GP

Verstappen just proved again he hasn’t changed, or matured, since F1 2021

OPINION: The Max Verstappen and Lando Norris Austrian Grand Prix clash had many similarities to the Red Bull driver’s tactics against Lewis Hamilton in 2021. But really it showed exactly how his racing tactics haven’t changed, or matured, since then

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The end of Formula 1’s 2024 Austrian Grand Prix was horribly familiar for motorsport purists – those who feel the world’s best drivers really shouldn’t be driving into each other. But it was thrilling again for so many other observers. Because it was F1 2021 all over again.

There are similarities between Red Bull racer Max Verstappen clashing with McLaren driver Lando Norris at the Red Bull Ring’s Turn 3 and so many moments from Verstappen’s campaign of campaigns against Lewis Hamilton three years ago.

That year ended with a distinct focus on unacceptable defending – after Verstappen’s Brazil Turn 4 moves went unpunished and led directly to his actions in the race of disgrace that was F1’s first visit to Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday in Austria, it was a Verstappen defensive move that ultimately earned a penalty, which followed his repeated driving towards Norris in the braking zones of their two earlier engagements at the same spot.

All included contentious Norris attacking moves given who the McLaren driver was coming from with a big DRS speed discrepancy. But these were cloaked in the mitigating circumstances of Verstappen’s aggressive defence. Oh so Silverstone 2021 and Hamilton not ceding ground at Copse.

And the Verstappen/Norris Austria crash followed a botched Red Bull pitstop with Verstappen left fuming over his team radio – a la Monza 2021 too.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella – a consistent voice of calm sanity in a year where so many of his fellow squad bosses have disgraced themselves – summed it up.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, retires in the pit lane after contact with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, whilst battling for the lead

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, retires in the pit lane after contact with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, whilst battling for the lead

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“The problem behind it is that if you don’t address these things honestly, they will come back,” said Stella.

“They have come back today because they were not addressed properly in the past when there was some fights with Lewis that needed to be punished in a harsher way.

Verstappen acted as he did last Sunday because of how he has approached F1 combat in the past.

Even hours after the clash he was claiming “I honestly think I did leave a car’s width on the white line”. The moves were also a reminder of his early F1 career late-braking tactics that led to the famed ‘Verstappen rule’.

F1’s racing rules have been tweaked since 2021, with needed clarity brought to many things Verstappen was doing.

His Abu Dhabi 2021 (and Bahrain and Jeddah 2022) safety car restart tactics were outlawed, plus much greater detail is now given to where drivers must have their front wheels at key moments in moves and when they must leave enough space for attacking rivals.

That all combined into Verstappen being apportioned blame for the Norris crash. But McLaren feels more needs to be done to stamp out the earlier defending too.

That doesn’t mean Norris wasn’t wrong to traverses track limits cynically – some would desperately, at Turn 3 as he left the pits from his second stop and Turn 1 reputedly in his hasty chase – as he pushed to catch Verstappen when he realised a win was on. Nor that his first attack came from too far back.

"But he adjusted and Verstappen did not."

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, battle for the lead

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, battle for the lead

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

This is just one of Verstappen’s innate characteristics. He is utterly unyielding. The lack of action in 2021 clearly tightened his resolve. But what F1 witnessed on Sunday was another of the markers he claims he doesn’t lay down, but obviously does.

Take Japan 2023, where Verstappen would later deny he was sending a message in his efforts after Red Bull’s only humbling at Singapore last year. This was undermined by Red Bull team Christian Horner revealing “he was properly fired up and he said: 'I want to win the race by 20 seconds'”…

Verstappen came into the Austria weekend with 69-point lead over Norris. He had no need to defend as hard as he did.

But, as was clear in his hyper-aggressive driving towards Hamilton in early 2021, with echoes of the tactics of other controversial F1 greats, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, during their early careers, he was plainly sending a message to Norris.

And he got one right back. Norris remains dead straight against the outside line to Turn 3 when they collide. He doesn’t shift to the kerb as Verstappen did against Carlos Sainz and Leclerc here last year – all moves from the cars on the inside illegal.

Norris has rapidly realised the only way to fight Verstappen is to give as good as you get. Maybe he always knew given what F1 witnessed in 2021.

He’s done it immediately because – as much as Norris claimed to be in a 2024 title fight after his Barcelona near miss – the points deficit means he can afford to take risks in a way Hamilton couldn’t in early 2021.

The other element of this saga is how it blows away the suggestions that Verstappen had since been “driving with great maturity” after his 2021 battle. This was how Horner put it at the 2022 French GP.

This theory was based on how Verstappen hadn’t collided in tight scraps with Leclerc that year. Yet it surely was clear to Verstappen what was to be the best 2022 car concept once the RB18 could shed that understeer-inducing excess weight and Ferrari was sure to implode against the crack Red Bull squad. He just didn’t need to be as aggressive, not that he’d decided to change.

That argument was always flimsy anyway. That much was proven by Brazil 2022, when there was another needless marker-maintaining crash, this time again with Hamilton. And later in that race, how Verstappen refused to help Sergio Perez in his doomed bid to finish second in the 2022 standings. This let the inner team tensions Red Bull had been working so hard to suppress out in the public spectacularly.

Then in 2023, Verstappen had called Russell a “dickhead” for racing with exactly the Dutchman’s uncompromising style in the Baku sprint.

Its rather shameful how fast Verstappen was to underline the failings of his Red Bull team in that last Austrian GP pitstop and his awkward balance shift on the tricky hard tyres. Plus, his highlighting of how this brilliant track layout feeds into controversial tactics by those willing to use it to their cynical advantage.

Pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team, talk in Parc Ferme

Pole man Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team, talk in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

GPS trace data shows Verstappen coming off the throttle and braking later than Norris in all but their initial clash where Norris went off – and even then, it’s very close.

This suggests Verstappen was moving fractionally before he braked, and why it doesn’t compute – Schumacher/Jerez 1997-style – that he was penalised for his actions. But in any case, it’s how this impacts already-committed Norris in the braking zone that matters.

And here the rules re-enter this already highly toxic debate. The FIA failed to act after Brazil 2021, when F1’s spectacle was clear prioritised over sporting purity.

What will it do now? If it’s nothing, again, Norris has already shown he too won’t back down and inevitably there will be more contact.

Exhilarating for some, despair for others.

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