The early signs of Red Bull vulnerability and what late Lando Norris onslaught revealed

A lap or two more. That’s all Lando Norris needed, he insisted, to overhaul Max Verstappen at the end of the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday and stand on the top step of the podium for the second race running.

He could well be right. From a margin as large as eight seconds with 20-odd laps to go – with Norris himself thwarting Charles Leclerc’s challenge behind him – the McLaren driver cut the deficit to the leader to 0.7 seconds by the chequered flag, with both Verstappen and Norris pushing their machinery to the absolute limit, no holds barred.

On an Imola circuit with only one DRS zone, could Norris have actually overtaken Verstappen at the death? We’ll never know. What the surprise late onslaught does tell us though – in what was, until that point, a largely uneventful 63-lap race – is that it seems Red Bull are no longer the indestructible, uncatchable juggernaut of 2023.

To the relief of most fans of Formula One, the chasing pack is finally carving away at their advantage.

“The first half [of the race] was very strong but the second half of that last stint, Lando started to catch us very quickly,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “The cars are converging after the latest upgrades, they are looking very similar. McLaren were very quick at this circuit and Ferrari as well.”

This season already tells us that the gap is closing. While Red Bull claimed an astonishing 21 wins from 22 races last year, they’ve already missed out twice this year after seven grands prix.

Naysayers may well state Carlos Sainz’s win in Australia owed to a mechanical fault on Verstappen’s car and Norris’s win in Miami was the result of a safety car. However, in Florida Norris had the lead but then – much like the latter stages in Imola – lapped much quicker than the Dutchman. Ferrari, it seems, are on the cusp of challenging too, if Charles Leclerc can put a lap together perfectly in the latter stages of qualifying.

But signs of the Red Bull beast disintegrating, signs of vulnerability, are clear. Adrian Newey’s departure next year after 19 years – with Ferrari his likely destination – feels like a sliding door moment. The long-running saga involving Christian Horner and a female colleague accusing him of “coercive behaviour” has not helped, also triggering speculation regarding Verstappen’s long-term future at the team, despite still being armed with the quickest car.

It is also possible that Red Bull have, after two years of domination, hit something close to a ceiling in their development of this iteration of car, given the humungous advantage they’ve enjoyed.

There’s also Sergio Perez. The team’s second driver stated at the start of April that he’d know his plans for 2025 “within a month”, but six weeks on we are no clearer to knowing his chances of staying at Red Bull next year, even if he is. In Imola, the Mexican endured a weekend to forget, failing to even qualify for Q3 while his teammate was on pole, and notably has slumped to third in the drivers’ standings behind Leclerc. Yuki Tsunoda, after another impressive weekend with Red Bull’s sister team, is most certainly applying the pressure.

Lando Norris came close to reeling in Max Verstappen at the end of Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix (Getty)
Lando Norris came close to reeling in Max Verstappen at the end of Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix (Getty)
Adrian Newey (left) is leaving Red Bull and Sergio Perez’s future is unclear (Getty)
Adrian Newey (left) is leaving Red Bull and Sergio Perez’s future is unclear (Getty)

But Red Bull’s competitors are catching up (bar Mercedes, who admit they are in something of a “no-man’s land” in fourth place overall). Ferrari are making waves, poaching two key Mercedes executives last week ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s arrival in 2025, with Newey perhaps also on his way.

McLaren’s revival in the past year has been exceptional, too, with team principal Andrea Stella and chief executive Zak Brown overseeing the hiring of ex-Red Bull designer Rob Marshall and creating a unique technical director role that has three different strings attached to it: Neil Houldey (engineering), Peter Prodromou (aerodynamics) and a performance lead, currently led by Stella as an interim.

With a promising and youthful driver pairing of Norris and Oscar Piastri, the future looks bright for the papaya.

“Andrea and his team are doing an awesome job,” Brown said post-race on Sunday. “The car keeps getting faster and faster. Today was maybe the first time we made Max sweat a little bit. He was definitely pushing, he was at his track limit, he was giving all he had.

“I think we have the chance of winning a few more races this year.”

Verstappen’s lead after seven races is still substantial: 48 points clear of Leclerc in second, 60 clear of Norris in fourth. Yet heading into the unorthodox twists and turns of Monaco – an outlier of a circuit – this weekend, Red Bull and Verstappen are finally being forced to look over their shoulder. Previously it was with disdain; now there will be a slight hint of concern.