“A very good sign” — Lando Norris on McLaren F1 closing Suzuka qualifying gap to Red Bull Racing compared to last year

Photo Credit: McLaren Racing
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McLaren’s rather positive Japanese weekend was almost crowned with a front row start for its British driver. After taking P3 in Q2 already as the only non Red Bull driver to sign a lap in the 1:28s, Norris’s first attempt was only 0.292s off Verstappen’s eventual pole lap.

Sergio Perez made good gains on his second run to push Verstappen all the way. It demoted Norris to the second row, where he will line up next to his former teammate Carlos Sainz.

Best of the rest, Norris was still very pleased with his P3, as he wasn’t expecting to be able to get such a positive starting spot considering how close the fight is behind Red Bull.

“Closer, but probably not as close as we were today. It was close between many people, you know, us, Mercedes, Aston, Ferrari. They didn’t seem to have quite the advantage as the last few weekends. So between eight cars, we knew it was going to be tricky.

“So to come out on top, behind the fastest two, I think is a good job by us. So I’m happy. It was tricky to put in the good laps, but my two Q3 laps I was the happiest with, which is always a good bonus. And two tenths is not far away. If we kind of look back to where we were last year we were even further away, I think five tenths off of pole.

Although McLaren finished P2 and P3 in qualifying at Suzuka last year, Norris was much closer to Verstappen this time around. He takes huge encouragement from that as McLaren had bolted on all their big updates by Japan in 2023 and continue to make progress.

“This is the first track we’ve come back to, which is where we had our upgrades last season. So I think it’s our best comparison of how we’ve improved over the winter and we’re quite a bit closer. I think that’s a very good sign,” noted the British driver who had scored a podium in Melbourne.

Asked about how he believes he can perform during the race tomorrow, Norris had confidence in the race pace of his MCL38 and in his chances of a second podium in a row, whereas he was not as sure about his victory odds:

“I don’t know. There’s not a lot to do. You know, first lap, try and get a good start. Obviously last year I was side by side with Max into Turn 1. So hopefully trying to redo that. But it’s tricky. They’re quick.

“They complained about their race pace, but I don’t think they’ve had a bad race in the last, four or five years, so I think they’re going to be good tomorrow. Of course we’ve got a lot of pressure from behind so we have to keep an eye on the mirrors. But at the same time I want to go forward and I think we have pace to stay where we are, so that’s my goal.”

In Norris’s opinion, fighting Red Bull seems like an uphill task tomorrow. He believes his focus will be on the fight with the Ferraris, Mercedes’, Alonso and teammate Piastri.

“I say yes. It’s so tricky. Sergio’s doing a good job, so that’s one much harder car to kind of keep up with. But we proved last year when we were further away from them that we could keep in touch and not be miles behind. So that will be our target for tomorrow. But I think realistically, we’re still too far away to challenge them.

“They’re too quick for us. Yes, we are quicker in quali, but in the race, normally, they always pull away a bit more. So, I think we’ll be realistic. I’m always realistic when I say it. I think our competition is with the guys behind. And at the same time, I’ll do my best to push forward.”

The Brit then went into further detail about the key moments of his session, his two push laps during Q3, explaining the fine balance the drivers had to manage due to the tyres falling away in the last sector.

“Kind of like they both said, Sergio and Max, as soon as you push that little bit more, you pay the price just that little bit. And it’s such a fine line between over-pushing and under-pushing. So I was very happy with my first lap that I did, so Q3, Run 1.“

“I was happy to try a few more things to try and unlock something more. It was still a good lap. It was, what, eight hundredths or something off my first. But just a couple little bits, mainly Sector 1, where I just try and push that little bit more, but as soon as I pushed that little bit more, I just lost the front tyres a bit, it’s so easy to go over the limit.”

“So apart from that, I gained in some other corners. Clearly not enough to kind of make a two-tenth jump or something that I really needed. So, yeah, they’re just both good laps, both pretty similar. Just one was better than the other,”  he concluded.