Over the last decade, Max Verstappen has won grands prix in such a vast variety of circumstances that there is now a suitable Verstappen victory to illustrate every page of the ‘Book of Motorsport Clichés’.

If it’s ‘to finish first, first you must finish,’ look at his historic maiden win at Barcelona in 2016.

‘Rubbing is racing’? Why, Austria 2019 of course.

‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over’? Abu Dhabi 2021.

And now, the 2024 Spanish Grand Prix will forever serve as proof, if proof was ever needed, that you can never win a grand prix in the first corner – you can only lose it.

Lando Norris had waited almost three years for his second career grand prix pole position when he finally achieved it at the end of an enthralling qualifying session. Although he had managed to best Verstappen over the course of a qualifying lap of the Circuit de Catalunya, admitting he’d thrown caution to the Catalan winds to do so, Norris knew that pole would leave him vulnerable on the almost 600-metre sprint to the first corner on Sunday.

Norris couldn’t cover off Verstappen and Russell at the start

“It’s a long run down to turn one,” he said. “It’s probably one of the places you don’t want to start on pole.”

McLaren took no chances. They equipped Norris with the best possible form of defence with which to fend off Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, George Russell and the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr behind him – his last remaining fresh set of soft tyres. Although the Ferraris sported the same, Verstappen and the Mercedes pair opted for used softs for the start – though only the Red Bull driver still had a fresh set available.

When the starting lights extinguished, both front row starters shot off the line together. But despite being on the dirty side of the grid, Verstappen pulled level with the McLaren’s rear axle before they had even reached the circuit’s famous timing tower. As a reward for his efforts, Norris left minimal room for him on the inside, with Verstappen’s right wheels running onto the grass.

“I think the first launch was quite okay, and then I got a little bit alongside,” Verstappen later explained. “I had to go a little bit on the grass.”

Verstappen was quick to cry foul on his radio but afterwards admitted: “If you turn it around, would I have done the same? I probably would have…”

Preoccupied with each other, the pair left a gaping hole on the outside line. Russell, having made a great getaway behind, lapped up a double dose of slipstream and headed to turn one up to 20kph faster than his rivals, an advantage he used to sweep around the outside of turn one and into the lead. Verstappen held the inside to demote Norris to third, while Hamilton recovered from a sluggish start to deny Leclerc fourth.

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Verstappen had succeeded in dispatching Norris, but Russell had probably not factored highly in Red Bull’s plans. They needed to remove him as a factor and, once DRS was activated, Verstappen was gently encouraged to do just that.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
Verstappen nailed Russell before his tyres started to fade

“Might be our best opportunity now, Max,” engineer Gianpiero Lambiase spoke into his ear. “Think wisely.”

Despite the DRS zone along the main straight being 100 metres shorter than last year, it still helped Verstappen to a 30kph advantage which he used to take the lead around the outside of the first corner at the start of the third lap, repaying the Mercedes driver for what he had done to Verstappen and Norris two laps prior. Now Verstappen had the clear air, while Norris was stuck behind the Mercedes.

Tyre conservation was going to be critical over the 66 laps, so Ferrari had discussed plans to treat their fresh softs gently in the early stages to benefit later in the stint. But Sainz exited the final corner at the end of lap three much faster than his team mate ahead and decided he was not going to be held up, attempting the fashionable move around the outside of turn one. The two SF-24s touched, Leclerc’s front wing suffering minor damage, while Sainz took to the escape road but still maintained his position. Play on, waved the stewards.

After the excitement of the early laps faded, drivers donned their sensible caps and began managing their tyres through the Catalunya circuit’s many long turns. Verstappen, therefore, did not escape as quickly as he often does, but a slight snap of oversteer through turn seven helped Russell stay within a handful of seconds of the leader.

Norris’ tyres were in good shape but he was running in dirty air. McLaren attempted to lure Mercedes into pitting Russell with a thinly-veiled “box to overtake” message to Norris on lap 14, but their rivals were not fooled. However, Russell came in for mediums at the end of the next lap alongside Sainz, freeing Norris to pick up pursuit of Verstappen.

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“Reduce all levels of management, Max,” the leader was told as Norris suddenly jumped from 1’21s to 1’20s. McLaren considered pitting him to overcut Russell, but Norris only had eyes on the Red Bull.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
McLaren delayed Norris’ first pit stop

The world champion pitted for mediums at the end of lap 17, putting Norris into the lead. McLaren extended his stint until lap 23, bringing him in for mediums before spitting him back out on track just behind Sainz. With his tyres several laps younger than those in front of him, Norris was soon on the back of the Ferrari, pulling off a rare pass to the inside of turn one to gain fourth behind the two Mercedes drivers.

Six minutes later, Norris drove around Hamilton for third along the main straight. But when he got to Russell soon after, the second Mercedes driver proved much more difficult to crack. Over several corners, the two engaged in what was probably the best battle of the race as Norris forced his way by.

“He defended into turn one, then I could kind of get the cut back,” Norris later recalled. “I had him on the outside of three. I was quite surprised in turn four… he could carry a lot more speed, get back to the outside, but then I could cut back on turn five on the exit and get him into turn seven. So it was a good fight.”

Having been passed by the McLaren, Russell was the first in for his second stop, just as he had been for his first, with Sainz again following him in. With just under 30 laps still remaining, hard tyres were the only viable option to get to the end of the race without a third stop. But with their mediums still having life in them, Verstappen, Norris, Hamilton and Leclerc could afford to extend to fit a faster compound for their final stints.

Hamilton pitted first of that group on lap 43 and found a set of soft tyres awaiting him – Russell had reported back that the hards were no good. Verstappen was the next in on lap 44 with Norris having whittled his lead down to just under five seconds, but he emerged with clear air and a fresh set of softs to make the most of it.

Under McLaren’s encouragement, Norris now had to wring as many milliseconds as he could out of his 21-lap-old mediums to limit what Verstappen could gain on him. While he picked up his pace by seven tenths on the first lap, he dropped back to a 1’19.4 on his next lap, suggesting that was as much as the rubber underneath him had to offer.

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With that, McLaren brought him in at the end of the next lap. But having used his new set of softs in his failed bid to hold the lead off the line, he only had a three-lap-old used set at his disposal for the end of the race. By the time he rejoined the track just ahead of Russell, Norris was eight seconds off Verstappen with 19 laps remaining, running on tyres that were identical in compound and age to the leader’s.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
The McLaren was quick but Verstappen couldn’t be caught

Although Norris’s efforts allowed him to chip away at Verstappen’s lead as the laps ticked down, Red Bull instructed their driver to push also. Norris found diminishing returns as a result, with the gap not falling fast enough for him to be projected to catch the Red Bull before the end of the race.

“Yeah, I just don’t have the pace,” Norris conceded over the radio.

Verstappen received regular updates: Where Norris was pushing most, where on the track he was losing out to the McLaren and how far away it was from him. At a point of the race where Verstappen is so used to simply checking off the laps to the chequered flag, he was still having to work for ensure he would stay ahead – just like he had at Imola.

“It just seemed like he could push a bit more in some corners,” Verstappen observed after the race. “I think we are struggling a little bit for that outright pace, it felt like.”

But whether Norris had the quicker car or not, he did not have the laps. Although he got within three seconds of Verstappen, it was too late for Norris to mount a serious challenge on the Red Bull for the win.

For the fourth time in ten years and the third successive season, Verstappen took the chequered flag at the Circuit de Catalunya, adding a seventh victory of the year and 25 more points to his already healthy tally from the season so far. As in Imola, Verstappen was much more jubilant when crossing the line than he has been after more routine victories.

“Yes!” he roared. “We were definitely not the quickest out there today, but we did every well – strategy as well. Yes!”

Norris crossed just over two seconds after him and immediately accepted responsibility for being beaten.

“I should have won,” he sighed. “I fucked up the start. The car was amazing, well done – it deserved more.”

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After the race, Norris echoed Verstappen’s view that he probably had the fastest package of the weekend.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
Hamilton made his first podium appearance this year

“I think we were quite easily best car out there today,” he said. “I just didn’t do a good enough job off the line. And that one thing cost me everything.

“From turn two onwards: 10 out of 10 – I don’t think I could have done much more. I think as a team, we did the perfect strategy and I was very happy with what we did. But the one part at the start, the 1%, wasn’t good enough.”

Behind the top two, Hamilton led the Mercedes pair to their second straight third and fourth place finish – only this time, he would be the one collecting the silverware.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve been up here,” Hamilton said after the race. “We’re slowly getting closer. Obviously the last couple of races we’ve also been relatively competitive. So I think we have closed the gap a little bit but we still have a good couple of tenths to try and find.”

The Ferraris finished where they started in fifth and sixth, but while Leclerc and Sainz had gained nothing compared to Saturday they appeared to have lost some rapport between one another, trading not-so-subtle barbs at each other following their early contact. Oscar Piastri gained two places for seventh, half a minute behind his team mate, while Sergio Perez was nearly a full minute behind his in eighth. For the second straight Sunday, the last two points places were claimed by Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon in the Alpines.

Before the season began, few would have been surprised to learn Verstappen would approach the halfway stage of the championship with more wins than the rest of the field combined. But for the perhaps the third time in 2024, the world champion had not been the favourite over the weekend – yet still found a way to win. And after he had lost the lead and likely the win in the first 600 metres of the race, Norris could only lament letting his rival off the hook once more.

“If I just made some better decision in Canada and if I had a better start today, we could have won two races,” he said. “And I know there always has been a lot of ‘shoulda, woulda, couldas’, but we have what it takes. It’s just about putting it all together.”

Heading into one of his favourite events just one week after this missed opportunity, Norris will be more determined than ever not to let another chance at victory slip away from him once more.

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Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2024
Verstappen clinched his seventh victory of 2024

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