Formula 1 Focus: Max makes the difference as McLaren continue to close in on Red Bull

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Formula 1 Focus: Max makes the difference as McLaren continue to close in on Red Bull

Verstappen just about held off Norris
Verstappen just about held off NorrisAFP
There's always plenty to talk about in the non-stop world of Formula 1 and Flashscore's Finley Crebolder gives his thoughts on the biggest stories going around the paddock in this regular column.

It wasn't enough to make it a race to remember but Lando Norris sparked the Imola Grand Prix into life when he began to rapidly close in on Max Verstappen with a handful of laps to go, giving us a fight for victory that has been oh so rare for the past two years. 

It was a climax that showed just how strong McLaren are becoming, coming at the end of a weekend that reminded the world just how good the reigning champion is. 

Verstappen shows that it's not just the car

Whenever a driver begins to dominate to such an extent as Verstappen has, frustrated fans inevitably begin to play down that driver's abilities and argue that he's only enjoying such success because he's been given a significantly better car than his competitors. In Imola, the Dutchman showed that's not the case for him.

Red Bull couldn't find a way to get the best out of their car from the very start of the weekend in Italy, but while that caused Sergio Perez to qualify down in 11th, Verstappen still managed to claim pole position with a stunning lap. The next day, he comfortably stayed ahead of and pulled away from Norris at the start, despite the fact that the McLaren looked set to have a stronger race pace.

And then, with the Brit chasing him down and the condition of his tyres making it feel like he was "driving on ice" in the closing stages, he stayed remarkably cool. With the margin at under a second, a single error would have cost him the race, but he didn't put a foot wrong.

In the exact same car, his teammate crossed the line in eighth after struggling to make his way through the midfield, and even factoring in the different strategies they were on and the fact that Perez had much less time in clean air, the gap between them across the weekend was still enormous.

It was a timely reminder that, while he may have had the luxury of driving the best car on the grid for a long time now, Verstappen is good enough to win without that luxury.

McLaren starting to make Red Bull sweat

It's starting to look like Red Bull will need Verstappen's talent more and more as the year goes on because McLaren are starting to breathe down their necks more than any team have since early 2022.

Oscar Piastri would have almost certainly taken pole in Imola if Verstappen hadn't been given a tow by Nico Hulkenberg, and Norris followed up his victory in Miami by finishing just 0.7 seconds behind the Dutchman. Before that, the reigning champion's average winning margin in 2024 was 14.3 seconds. 

It's difficult to see the McLaren becoming faster than the Red Bull before the end of the season, but having slightly weaker machinery could well be balanced out by the fact that the British team have a strong driver pairing. Both of their drivers are consistently getting the best out of their cars, and the same can't be said for their rivals due to Perez's struggles. 

Only a grid penalty for Piastri stopped Verstappen from having to deal with two McLarens on his own in Imola with Perez failing to qualify in the top 10, and whether he still would have claimed victory if the Aussie was up there with his teammate is very much up for debate. 

While it may have come too late for them to challenge for the titles, McLaren's progress is a development that could give us some thrilling races this year and make Red Bull more wary of keeping Perez rather than signing Carlos Sainz in anticipation of a title fight in 2025. Bring it on.

All signs point to Antonelli at Mercedes

One of the most interesting moments of the weekend for me was one that happened away from the track, with Valtteri Bottas being spotted leaving the Williams motorhome after reportedly meeting with team principal James Vowles for 15 minutes. Bottas potentially returning to Williams may not seem that exciting at face value but it is when you look a little deeper because it has big repercussions further up the grid.

It has been widely believed that if Mercedes decided not to replace Lewis Hamilton with academy product Kimi Andrea Antonelli for 2025, they were going to send him to Williams for a season instead, so the fact that the British team are on the hunt for someone to partner Alex Albon suggests that the Italian youngster will be given the nod by Toto Wolff.

What's more, Wolff himself then said to Sky Sports on the same day, "I guess for the Italians, it is super exciting to have Lewis Hamilton in red next year. We will get used to the outfits. But we’ve got to look at ourselves and maybe there is an option that we shine more with an Italian in our car.”

That comment and the fact that Williams are looking for other drivers make it seem pretty certain that Antonelli will be heading straight to Mercedes when he joins the grid next year, which in turn increases the chance of Sainz settling for a move to the team that will be Audi from 2026.

The pieces for 2025 are starting to fall into place. 

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