After Austria clash, is this the end of Max Verstappen and Lando Norris’s bromance?

The leading duo in Formula One for quite some time now, this skirmish had been coming for a while. Ever since Lando Norrisinaugural win some eight weeks ago in Miami, his close friend and regular padel-playing partner Max Verstappen was not going to allow his pal to steal his thunder for much longer. They came close to clashing on track at the end of the race in Imola in May. Close again last week in Barcelona. But this time, under the watchful gaze of the Styrian mountains and orange-clad Dutch army, the inevitable flashpoint arrived.

After two close shaves – in which Norris implored to his team and the stewards that race leader Verstappen was moving under braking, an illegal manoeuvre – it would be three and out for both in this dramatic finale to the Austrian Grand Prix. On lap 64 of 71, once more at the tricky, uphill run-up to turn three at the Red Bull Ring, Norris this time opted for the outside. Verstappen darted to the left, they touched. Both then attempted to steer around the clockwise hairpin, they touched again.

It wasn’t a massive shunt. It wasn’t Hamilton-Verstappen, Silverstone 2021. But it was enough.

Both were left with punctures and, by the time they’d limped back to the pits, George Russell has capitalised to take the lead and the victory. Verstappen was fortunate, unaffected by a 10-second time penalty dished out for the collision, to finish fifth. Norris was not so lucky and, due to the damage to his McLaren car, was forced to retire.

While Norris slammed his friend for “ruining his race”, labelling his defensive moves under braking as “desperate” and “reckless”, the most cutting words came from the softly spoken McLaren team principal Andrea Stella. Usually so calm, Stella was irrevocably fierce in his opinion and even brought back memories of that most titanic of title tussles three years ago.

“I see that the entire population in the world know who is responsible except for a group of people,” he told Sky F1. “The problem behind it is that if you don’t address these things, they will come back.

“They have come back today because they were not addressed properly in the past when there were some fights with Lewis [in 2021]. That needed to be punished in a harsher way. You learn how to race in a certain way, which we can consider fair and square.

“The fact is that we have so much respect for Red Bull and Max. They don’t need to do this as a way to almost compromise your reputation. Why would you do that?”

For the first time in this ultra-dominant Red Bull era, Verstappen’s racing craft has been called into question. When Verstappen stormed onto the F1 scene at 17 years of age in 2015, his habit of sharply shifting his car in the braking zone, forcing the driver behind to quickly alter direction in order to avoid a crash, was heavily criticised. It resulted in some near-misses and big crashes.

Max Verstappen and Lando Norris enjoy a friendship off-track (Getty Images)
Max Verstappen and Lando Norris enjoy a friendship off-track (Getty Images)
McLaren team principal Andrea Stella slammed Verstappen’s defence on Sunday (Getty Images)
McLaren team principal Andrea Stella slammed Verstappen’s defence on Sunday (Getty Images)

Of course, 2021 was the season everyone remembers for some thrilling racing between Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen but, within that, came some on-the-limit, edge-of-a-cliff manoeuvres. Brazil that year, for instance, saw Verstappen go unpunished for forcing Hamilton off-track. It is likely this specific instance which Stella is indirectly referring to.

Verstappen, whose cheeriness of recent years had vanished post-race, was unwilling to accept full blame on Sunday.

“In the past, it’s [my braking] has been a complaint,” he admitted. “Now, I always move my wheel when I brake. It’s easy to say but I think the guy in the car knows what he’s doing.

“Everyone can have their opinion. I’m the one driving. From the outside, it’s easy to judge and comment.”

George Russell capitaised to win in F1 for just the second time (Getty Images)
George Russell capitaised to win in F1 for just the second time (Getty Images)

Norris, when asked whether he would seek out Verstappen, responded: “It depends what he says. If he says he did nothing wrong, I’ll lose a lot of respect for that. If he admits to being a bit stupid and running into me and being reckless, then I’ll have a small amount of respect.”

So consider that, respect lost.

It is a flashpoint which could represent something much more significant for the rest of this season and beyond. While Norris’ retirement allowed Verstappen to extend his championship lead to 81 points, the Bristolian will once again be buoyed by his car’s superior pace in the latter half of the race. It is becoming a common theme and, now, Norris will be desperate to convert the speed advantage into race wins.

Nowhere better would he like to do that than at his home race at Silverstone this coming weekend. Verstappen is not exactly the most popular man around there, either.

But for the pair of Monaco residents, who have so often been in fits of laughter in front of the cameras and enjoy a genuine friendship away from the circus of the F1 bubble, this is a low-point. The first cracks have started to show; much to the enthralment to the rest of us, desperate for an excitable sporting product once more.

The sport has a history of high-octane rivalries and, if Norris is serious about his desire to win a world championship, the creaking of this bromance with Verstappen was utterly foreseeable. And has now finally arrived.