Helmut Marko identifies ‘clear’ Spanish GP favourite after Max Verstappen ‘gone’ admission

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen looks reflective in the post-qualifying press conference in Barcelona

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Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko has conceded that McLaren are “clear favourites” to win the Spanish Grand Prix after Lando Norris pipped Max Verstappen to pole position in Barcelona.

Having started the F1 2024 season in dominant fashion, winning four of the first five races, Verstappen and Red Bull have appeared increasingly vulnerable over recent weeks.

Helmut Marko: McLaren ‘clear’ favourites for Spanish Grand Prix victory

Additional reporting by Sam Cooper

After struggling over bumps and kerbs at the last three races in Emilia Romagna, Monaco and Canada, the reigning World Champions had been expected to be back to their best at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where Verstappen won from pole by 24 seconds in F1 2023.

However, Verstappen failed to top any of the three practice sessions in Spain before being beaten to pole by McLaren driver Norris.

Norris’s second career pole comes almost three years after his first at the 2021 Russian Grand Prix and just weeks after the British driver secured his maiden F1 victory in Miami.

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Speaking to Sky Germany after qualifying, Marko revealed Red Bull were concerned that they would not be in contention for pole after Verstappen could only manage fourth in the final practice session on Saturday morning.

And he admitted that Norris and McLaren are clear favourites to win the race, highlighting tyre management as a key factor in the outcome on Sunday.

He said: “After the third practice session, we weren’t at all sure whether we would even make it into the first two rows of the grid.

“But ultimately it was Turn 4 where we lost out to Lando. We were faster in Sector 1 and Sector 3, so [things] went in the right direction overall.

“If we take the long runs from Friday, McLaren is the clear favourite. But with the changes we have made, we can also assume that tyre wear will improve.

“If it stays like this, it will probably be a two-stop race.

“Then, of course, the pit and the right timing will be crucial. Let’s hope that the safety car comes at the right moment for us – or not at all.”

Verstappen’s distant sixth-placed finish at last month’s Monaco Grand Prix prompted his father and former F1 star Jos to declare that Red Bull’s period of dominance had “come to an end.”

And Verstappen himself admitted after qualifying in Spain that Red Bull’s previous superiority has now “completely gone” in the face of a renewed threat from the likes of McLaren and Ferrari.

Asked if this result is a wake-up call for Red Bull, he told media including PlanetF1.com: “I think we are pretty much very awake already with what’s happening.

“We need to push on, we need to bring parts faster, better.

“We had a very dominant car last year. That is completely gone, naturally, and we just need to really try and make a step ahead again.”

Verstappen went on to remark that Red Bull have had a “clean” weekend in Spain compared to recent races, admitting the RB20 car is simply “lacking a bit of pace” currently.

He explained: “I think it’s been OK, but not good enough clearly.

“On this kind of track, I was hoping of course to be ahead.

“But the other teams are catching up and we’ve seen this already in the last few races, so it’s definitely a lot harder.

“We need to do everything perfect to be first and we just need to bring more performance to the car.

“We had no issues from what we’ve experienced in the last few weeks, but it took a bit of finetuning again to get the car quick.

“But I don’t feel like it’s always just finetuning, sometimes also it just seems like we are lacking a bit of pace so we need to just try and be more competitive.”

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