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Formula 1 Emilia Romagna GP

Does Red Bull no longer have F1's fastest car?

First there was McLaren's Lando Norris win in Miami, then Max Verstappen narrowly held him off in Imola. Does Red Bull still have the fastest car in Formula 1?

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

The 2024 season is starting to shift towards a three-horse race between Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari as car upgrades have appear to have whittled down the difference between the three teams to one or two tenths at best.

There is little doubt Verstappen and Red Bull are still in a plum position to see out both championships, but with more than two thirds of the championship still to run, the recent surges by Ferrari and especially McLaren have injected some much-needed life into the competitive order.

But while Norris was helped by the safety car in Miami, he and Oscar Piastri were on course to deliver a front-row for McLaren in Imola, only for Verstappen to gain a tow from Nico Hulkenberg. That little help from his friend delivered a bigger boost than the 0.074s and 0.091s gaps to the McLarens.

With how difficult it proved to pass at Imola, perhaps the roles of the hunter and hunted would have been reversed, and Norris' late pace in the race showed Red Bull is now truly under pressure.

But does that mean Red Bull has fully been caught? Its free practice struggles in Imola were well documented, and Norris' late comeback was as much down to his exquisite driving and clever tyre management as it was about Verstappen's hard tyres dropping in temperature.

"I think for the first 40 laps we were in a really good window and he would’ve managed the gap," Red Bull team boss Christian Horner thought.

"After he came out the gap dropped to six seconds, but he was able to hold it there. But Lando, whatever window they managed to get their tyres into, suddenly their car came alive and it just showed how sensitive these tyres are to the different conditions."

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

"The recovery from Friday to Saturday was very strong and what we managed to achieve on the medium tyre was very strong. I think we need to look at why were we weak in the second half of the stint, because it was only the second half on the hard tyre compared to Lando."

The caveats accompanying the results in Miami and Imola suggest that it would be wise to wait - beyond outlier Monaco - for Montreal and especially F1's well-known Barcelona proving ground to draw proper conclusions on whether McLaren has truly caught let alone surpassed Red Bull in pure speed.

F1 is no longer just a battle of who has the fastest car

But what's clear is that, with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc also just seven seconds behind, the margins are now so fine that Verstappen and Red Bull can no longer cruise to wins or brute force their way out of issues elsewhere by virtue of having a superior car.

Driver performance, car set-up, strategy, sim work, race starts, pitstops, and tyre management are now all coming into play as potentially bigger differentiators than just the innate speed of the cars themselves.

"The execution of the weekend is always a key factor, but when margins are so close, then clearly operations, the way you drive the tyres and the way you execute the race can become the dominant factor," McLaren team principal Stella Andrea explained.

"Between a McLaren and a Red Bull, there wasn't much to pick and there were other factors that made the difference.

"Being in the dirty air seemed to be a big factor, so having pole position, being ahead in the first corner, allowed you to manage the tyres in a certain way and manage your own pace."

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Vasseur believes the battle between 2024's three top teams will be fought "everywhere" from now on.

"It's good news for me, good news for F1, good news for the championship," he said. "You have three teams in seven seconds after seventy laps. It's less than one tenth a lap.

"The competition will be everywhere. The set-up of the car will be crucial, the performance of the driver will be crucial."

That is not to say teams still aren't flat out to fast-track upgrades to the circuit, but it appears they are hitting diminishing returns as the regulations enter their third year.

At the top of the leaderboard, the development path is becoming an "asymptote", as Vasseur always likes describing it. A curve that will never fully hit zero, but slowly starts flattening out over time.

"We are now chasing the last hundredths," said Vasseur. "It's not anymore a five-tenth upgrade.

"It means that you also have to be sure that what you are bringing is working. It will be the key factor for the next couple of events."

This is exactly the scenario that Red Bull warned about when it was enjoying its unprecedented dominance in 2023, winning all but one race as it seemed like the Milton Keynes-based squad would remain unchallenged until 2025.

Even earlier this year, it looked like Red Bull had done enough to keep rivals at arm's length with its boldly different RB20.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

But while Horner's words of caution were with met with varying degrees of disbelief, that scenario might actually play out sooner than most observers expected.

"You cannot take anything for granted and we certainly don’t," he pointed out.

"We’ve won five out of seven races, two out of two sprint races and seven out of seven poles, but the margins are fine, very fine, and in year three of these rules there is always going to be convergence.

"We are seeing exactly that. The look of the cars is converging, the performance is converging and you can see more races like Imola with fine margins."

So while Red Bull still looks the favourite to bring it home, leading Ferrari by 56 points and McLaren by 114, the increased pressure it is under has become a source of motivation and fighting talk at Ferrari and McLaren.

"It's not very often that you have six or potentially eight cars which could win a race," Vasseur concluded.

"It means that when you are not in a good shape, you can move from P1 to P8 and you are scoring almost zero.

"It means that the championship can change after one or two weekends. Imagine that you have a crash, a DNF, it's a game changer in terms of championship.

"If one team is doing a 1-2 and the other one has a DNF, then McLaren can come back or we can come back on Red Bull."

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB20, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Watch: F1 2024 Emilia Romagna GP Review - Too Late for McLaren's Charge on Red Bull

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