Imola GP: Verstappen holds on to beat charging Norris

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It looked like it was back to business as normal for Max Verstappen at Imola, but a late charge from Lando Norris meant the gap was just seven tenths between the Red Bull and the McLaren at the line.

Behind Norris, Ferrari's Charles Leclerc joined the podium at the end of Sunday's Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, with their respective team mates Oscar Piastri and Carlos Sainz following in fourth and fifth.

There were no accidents during the race, although Alex Albon retired having gone a lap down after an improperly fitted wheel on the Williams earned him a penalty; and Fernando Alonso suffered a brief brake fire on his Aston Martin.

The summer sunshine was back in full strength for the start of the Emilia Romagna GP. Any talk of rain had long since dried up, and the only umbrellas on display were to offer shade to fans, drivers and personnel. Despite a tough start for Red Bull on Friday, Max Verstappen had continued his sweep of this season's poles, and there was a McLaren alongside him on the front row - although not the one you might have been expecting after qualifying, a grid penalty for Oscar Piastri promoting his team mate Lando Norris to P2.

Grid atmosphere - fans in the grandstand. 19.05.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

When the lights went out, Verstappen asserted his control into turn 1 while Norris held off heavy pressure from Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. There was some minor contact further back between Lance Stroll and Esteban Ocon battling over P12 that threw up some debris, but it was generally a clean start with no serious clashes as Daniel Ricciardo lost tenth to Sergio Perez.

By the time DRS was available, Verstappen was already out of activation range of Norris who was in turn edging away from the two Ferraris. Piastri was applying pressure on Sainz having consolidated fifth, comfortably ahead of the two Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, while Nico Hulkenberg was ahead of Yuki Tsunoda.

A number of pit stops came earlier than expected with Fernando Alonso in for hard tyres on lap 9 having started from pit lane, his brakes briefly on fire as he came back out on hard tyres. Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly and Valtteri Bottas also came in, but there was a rapid recall for Albon with an improperly fitted tyre needing attention. He was last and already a lap down by the time he finally reached home, even before a penalty for unsafe release. He eventually called it a day on lap 54, the day's only retirement.

Alexander Albon (THA) Williams Racing FW46. 19.05.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Charniaux / XPB Images

Pit stops continued with RB team mates Ricciardo and Tsunoda in on laps 12 and 13 to find track space. It provoked a response from Hulkenberg but the undercut worked for Tsunoda who gained a net position when Hulkenberg came back out. Verstappen stayed out, his margin now over five seconds with no traffic to worry about. His team mate Perez wasn't having such a smooth time and ran wide into the gravel at Rivazza on lap 18. It cost him several seconds, but he was able to retain P8 from Stroll.

Mercedes saw an opportunity to pit Russell on lap 22. He came out in P10, and then it was Norris who emerged from pit lane alongside Perez after a sluggish stop. He soon managed to get back ahead of the Red Bull, as Piastri followed his team mate through pit lane to come back out behind Stroll. Fresh tyres meant Piastri soon picked off the Aston Martin

Verstappen was now struggling on his tyres and had been shown a black and white flag for repeated track limits violations. He pitted on lap 25. Leclerc was in on the next lap briefly handing the lead to Sainz before he too made a call to pit lane on lap 28, accompanied by Hamilton who had briefly strayed off into the gravel at Acque Minerali. The early stop by McLaren had jumped Piastri ahead of Sainz, while Perez - still yet to stop after starting on a set of hards - was struggling now and lost sixth to Russell on lap 31.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20. 19.05.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

Verstappen was back in the lead by 6.5s from Norris at the halfway point. But degradation was proving more of a problem than expected: Norris was certainly worried that his tyre conservation was allowing Leclerc to eat into the gap between them. However Perez had made his initial set of hard tyres last until lap 38 before pitting, having just been picked off by Hamilton.

His stop dropped Perez to P11 but the fresh rubber meant he was soon using DRS to fly past Ricciardo, Hulkenberg and Tsunoda in rapid succession, Lance Stroll following hard in his footsteps. However it remained a half a minute from there for them to catch the two Mercedes.

Lando Norris (GBR) McLaren MCL38. 19.05.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Imola, Italy, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

Leclerc was now within DRS range of Norris, and told "You are the fastest man on the track" by his race engineer. Norris had a backmarker battle between Zhou Guanyu and Kevin Magnussen to navigate: worried about incurring more penalties, Magnussen sprang out of the way but Zhou was a little more reluctant. The pressure on Norris was soon eased by Leclerc bouncing straight across the grass at Variante Alta on lap 48, and the McLaren got a new lease of life while Verstappen really started to struggle on his waning tyres.

Mercedes found a big enough gap to bring Russell in for fresh mediums on lap 53 and still get him back out ahead of Perez, and he immediately set the fastest lap. No one else did the same and the laps soon ran out with Verstappen scrambling home albeit just over seven tenths over Norris to take for his third consecutive win at Imola. Leclerc was seven seconds behind the pair to join them on the podium.

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