Race Day 2024: Gand Prix of Monoco Verstappen welcomes a challenge from Norris and resurgent team McLaren.

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Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands celebrates after he became the world champion after winning the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

MONACO (AP) — Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen welcomes McLaren’s surge in form ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend.

He only just held off Lando Norris last Sunday to win the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, beating the McLaren driver by .725 seconds. It was far removed from the crushing winning margins Verstappen enjoyed with Red Bull last year in a season of record dominance.

“It’s good for the sport that more teams are fighting for the win,” Verstappen said on Thursday at the Monaco GP. “For sure, things have (tightened) up which, from our side, makes it important to be at our very best.”

Although Verstappen took pole position at Emilia Romagna, he was pushed hard in qualifying by McLaren with Oscar Piastri starting second on the grid and Norris third.

Norris is on a roll with three straight podium finishes, including a victory in Miami on May 5. It has offered fans the hope of a closer championship and given Norris the belief he can be a genuine title contender.

“Everyone should think like that,” Verstappen said of Norris talking up his chances. “Especially after their last two races, they (McLaren) are really in the mix.”

Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton used to be Verstappen’s main rival, losing the 2021 title on the last lap of the final race. While Mercedes is not yet quick enough to close the gap to Red Bull, the British veteran is thrilled to see his former team McLaren looking so strong.

some fast facts ahead of the F1 Chronicle

Monaco Grand Prix Fast Facts

“Lando’s doing a great job, Oscar is doing a really great job as well,” said Hamilton, who won his first F1 title with McLaren in 2008. “Seeing McLaren back up there, it just warms my heart because I was there for such a long time and they gave me my break. I hope that we (Mercedes) can get closer as well.”

Still, even with McLaren’s recent progress, the points gap remains large: Verstappen leads the championship by 48 points from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez 54 points adrift in third, and Norris 60 points back in fourth overall.

“We still have a very, very fast car. I’m happy where I’m at,” Verstappen said of Red Bull. “There’s so much investment going on, with the engine side of things.”

Leclerc has four podium finishes, and hasn’t finished lower than fourth, but he’s not buying into the idea that Verstappen and Red Bull are suddenly vulnerable.Ad

“I don’t want to kill the enthusiasm, but I wouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly,” he said. “McLaren, Red Bull and ourselves are pretty close in qualifying. We know how important qualifying is here.”

Verstappen has been untouchable in qualifying when it matters this season, taking every pole position for Red Bull.

He has eight straight poles stretching back to the final race of last season, and another one in Monaco will break the F1 record he shares with the late Ayrton Senna.

Verstappen, however, does not feel overly optimistic of achieving this in Monaco, given how tight and sinewy the 3.3-kilometer (two-mile) street circuit is.

“Even if you’re supposed to have the best car, Monaco is a very tricky track. It’s not going to be our best track (because) of bumps and kerbs,” he said. “Ferrari are usually very strong here in qualifying and McLaren have really ramped up in performance.”

To boost its chances of victory, and to offset the tight confines of the street course, Red Bull is bringing a maximum downforce rear wing.

“It’s so narrow,” Verstappen said about Monaco. “I find it’s even more challenging (than other street circuits).”

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