The chaotic battle between Lando Norris and Max Verstappen in Austria shows just how tough it will be to topple the 3-time champ

TOPSHOT - Red Bull Racing's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (front) drives ahead of McLaren's British driver Lando Norris during the Formula One Austrian Grand Prix on the Red Bull Ring race track in Spielberg, Austria, on June 30, 2024. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP) (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Max Verstappen somehow extended his points lead over Lando Norris after the two made contact while racing for the lead in the Austrian Grand Prix. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP) (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)

George Russell’s surprising Austrian Grand Prix win only strengthened Max Verstappen’s status as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2024 Formula 1 title.

Verstappen dominated for much of the race on Sunday before a poor pit stop put Lando Norris within striking distance. As Norris chased down Verstappen over the last 20 laps of the race, he was able to make repeated attempts at a pass for the lead thanks to the DRS advantage he had behind Verstappen.

Norris knew he had to be aggressive; and that desperation finally reared its head on lap 64 of the 71-lap race when the two drivers made contact in Turn 3.

The contact resulted in tire punctures for both drivers, and Russell took over the race lead as they limped to the pits. But Norris got the worse end of the contact with Verstappen and had to retire his car a lap later. Verstappen, meanwhile, was able to finish fifth and extend his points lead over Norris.

Versappen is now 81 points ahead of Norris through the first 11 races of the 84-race season. Yes, Verstappen has now failed to win more races (four) this season than he did in all of 2023 (three). But it’s hard to see Norris, or anyone else for that matter, able to challenge Verstappen for the championship.

Norris won the pole a week ago at the Spanish Grand Prix but lost positions to both Russell and Verstappen at the start before finishing second to Verstappen. After that race, Norris said he needed to be perfect to beat Verstappen. And that’s a sentiment that rings even more true after Austria.

Verstappen won Saturday’s sprint race before taking the pole for the main event on Sunday at Spielberg. And while his car wasn’t a fan of the hard compound tires, he still had the fastest vehicle over the course of the race. If it wasn’t for the slow pit stop, Norris hardly has a chance at the win.

But that slow pit stop exemplifies what it takes to beat Red Bull and Verstappen in F1 these days. It’s incredibly hard to beat them straight up. If Verstappen and Red Bull don’t make mistakes, they’re nearly impossible to beat.

After Sunday’s race, Norris expressed his displeasure with the way Verstappen raced him before they made contact. Verstappen knew that Norris had a straight-line pace advantage thanks to his drag reduction system on the straightaways and was aggressive defending his line. Norris thought Verstappen was being too aggressive, while Verstappen radioed to his team during the race that he thought Norris was being too aggressive as well.

It was a type of battle that’s been missing for much of the past two seasons as Verstappen has dominated Grands Prix on a weekly basis. It was fun to watch unfold, and the surprise winner was a fun aspect too — even if Russell was given a massive gift.

Mercedes’ second win since 2021 is a big boost for the team after it’s struggled to get a grasp on its car since the start of the 2022 season. The team has made serious strides in recent weeks, though it’s clear that Red Bull and McLaren are still the two fastest teams on the grid at the moment.

Norris is a worthy challenger to Verstappen, and he’ll likely win another race or three before the season is over unless McLaren has a serious dip in form. But it’s going to take a lot for Verstappen to cough up a three-race points lead. And it’s really, really difficult to envision that happening.

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