Norris, who starts Sunday’s race from second on the grid, made his F1 debut in 2019 and has broken into the ranks as one of the top drivers on the grid.
He came within a few laps of victory at the 2021 Russian GP and thinks McLaren had the pace to seriously challenge Max Verstappen last time out in Qatar, had he started at the front.
With Verstappen starting sixth and Norris on the front row alongside pole-sitter Charles Leclerc, it gives the McLaren driver hope to claim that maiden win.
Advantage Norris in Austin?
The first lap will dictate how this race plays out because if Norris isn’t in the lead, his chances of winning immediately become a lot more difficult.
He struggled to get past Carlos Sainz in the Sprint Race on Saturday due to the Ferrari‘s superior straight line speed and cannot afford a similar issue in the Grand Prix.
Get in the lead, and Norris can set off into the distance as Verstappen tries to get through the likes of George Russell and Sainz. In 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2022, the driver starting in second led after Turn 1 but Leclerc will not be making it easy.
“You never know what can happen but [I’m in] a really good position,” said Norris. “Charles is normally a good starter to get started to be honest there, it’s going to be difficult to get him off the line. But we’re almost in the best position you can have for a Sunday, so I’m happy with that.”
Norris and Oscar Piastri are the only drivers from the top teams with two sets of new hard tyres in their allocation, so that could become beneficial in the second half of the race.
The British driver’s tyre degradation was similar to Lewis Hamilton in the Sprint, but both were slower than Verstappen – hence why a head start is needed over the three-time world champion.
“The pace is very good,” Norris told Sky Sports F1. “I think Hamilton‘s going to be our competition and Max coming through.
“If I can get into the lead early on at Turn 1, control my pace, we can give ourselves a lot of opportunities to finish high up. But I expect some competition.”
Mercedes to split strategy?
Let’s not forget about Mercedes though as Hamilton starts third and Russell is fifth. The soft tyre probably won’t be used, so two mediums and a hard is what all the top teams will use in the race – apart from McLaren who have two hards and a medium.
Mercedes might start Russell on the hard to run him long and see if he can get lucky with a well-timed safety car, or even try a bold one-stop if the tyre wear is not as high as predicted.
The key for Mercedes is they are not a sitting duck to Verstappen on the straights. However, realistically, Hamilton and Russell won’t have much to fight with. The Mercedes pair also need to be careful they don’t trip over themselves again.
Russell also showed in the Sprint that he struggled to get past the Ferrari of Sainz, so this is where Mercedes are going to have problems on Sunday.
Hamilton must get by Leclerc on Lap 1 for a second consecutive day to stand any chance of victory. If he can’t, we might have a DRS train behind Leclerc in the early part of the race.
“Anything’s possible,” said Hamilton. “It depends. I mean, he [Verstappen] has got at least half a second on all the cars ahead of him per lap, pretty much. So that should be enough to get by.
“But there is degradation and those sorts of things and strategy, I assume he will be climbing relatively fast. So, we will have a job on our hands up ahead to try and hold him back. But it’s a track that you can overtake, so it is likely that he will be finishing high up.”
No chance for Ferrari?
Leclerc will do very well to finish on the podium given Ferrari‘s lack of race pace. Even if he stays ahead on Lap 1, they will be under a serious threat from an undercut or overcut because their tyres are falling away more than the others.
On paper, it will be a Verstappen–Norris–Hamilton podium, so it will take an incident or two for Ferrari to be in the top three.
“It’s going to be tight, as much as it’s going to be tight also with the Mercedes guys and Lewis,” said Leclerc. “I expect Max to get ahead and to not be too much of a fight but then otherwise it’s going to be tight.
“I think we have to look into our data and try to understand what we can do better for Sunday’s degradation because the pace is there, it’s always been there, sometimes we seem to be a bit inconsistent with our race pace.
“In the Sprint it was the case, we struggled more than others and we’ll try to understand what’s wrong and see if we can do anything different to help that.”
When will Verstappen be in the lead?
If you consider how Verstappen comfortably went from 15th to second in Saudi Arabia this year, brilliantly drove from ninth to victory in Miami and eased to the win from sixth in Belgium, expect something similar in Austin on Sunday.
The only saving grace is his advantage over the others isn’t as big compared to those three aforementioned races, but it’s still significant.
Verstappen, who won the 2021 and 2022 United States GP, says he will have a “bit of fun” out there and will just need to be careful of losing a few spots on the first lap.
“Of course, it’s not ideal to start P6,” said Verstappen. “But the pace of the car seems quite strong, and hopefully on higher fuel loads, we can do something similar.
“But, it’s one thing to be faster, but we have also to try and get by a few cars this time. So with the degradation around here that’s not going to be straightforward, trying to follow also through the high speed, but, we have a race on our hands, I think.”
Verstappen looked very confident post-Sprint and that says it all. With the perfect race though, Norris will be a threat and it would be brilliant if he goes into the final stint with a buffer over Verstappen…