Lando Norris
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As Lando Norris heads into the final two races of the 2021 season, he has answered many of the questions he had in his own head about himself before the year started.

For someone who is very much in the top echelon of the emerging generation of new Formula 1 stars, the 22-year-old is a self-effacing guy. He has admitted to self-doubt and crises of confidence, and he knew this year was going to be a defining moment in his career.

Daniel Ricciardo was joining McLaren as Norris’ team-mate. A multiple grand prix winner, a man who had gone toe-to-toe with Max Verstappen when they were together at Red Bull. If Norris could match or beat Ricciardo, it would be the making of him. If he couldn’t, well, there would inevitably be questions about his longevity in Formula 1.

Norris need not have worried. Although Ricciardo took the victory in Italy that ended a nine-year drought for McLaren, it is Norris who has emerged as the team’s top driver – well ahead in the championship, and leading 12-7 on their qualifying head-to-head, at a chunky 0.239 seconds faster on average.

“It’s been very good for me,” Norris says. “Because it’s always that question when you go up against a driver like that – are you going to do well? Is he going to beat me in every single qualifying [and] race of the season?

“There were the thoughts going through your head a little bit before the year. So when none of that happens, you feel: ‘OK, if I can do this against him, he could beat this guy when he was in the same car, then I must be in a decent place.’

“It makes you think good things. But on the flip side it doesn’t make me feel like I’m suddenly the best driver in the world, because there have been some races where Daniel has been quicker than me, and he’s still Daniel.

“Once he’s clicked and found his way [at McLaren], I hope to still be quicker than him, but I know it’s not gonna be like I’m always quicker than him because he’s a very, very, very good driver.”

Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris
Lewis Hamilton believes Lando Norris can win many races in the future

Coming to terms with a win that got away

It has been a breakthrough season for Norris. Performing so impressively has made a powerful statement about his abilities to the whole of the sport.

“My confidence has definitely come up now in how I feel like I’ve performed,” Norris says. “It’s not necessarily all because I’ve beaten Daniel, but a very small part of it [has given me] just that little bit more confidence.”

Norris could well have followed Ricciardo into the winner’s circle. One race on from the Australian’s victory at Monza, Norris was outstanding in Russia. He took pole in the wet, and led confidently for much of the way, until a late downpour turned the race on its head.

Norris had been holding off Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes for a long time. And as the rain came down in the closing laps, initially only lightly, both were in a quandary – stay out on slick dry-weather tyres, or come in for treaded wets?

Both were resisting the idea of pitting. But in the end, Mercedes called Hamilton in, seeing on the weather radar that heavier rain was about to hit. McLaren left Norris out, a decision they admit was a mistake. Hamilton won. Norris, after making the switch to wets far too late, finished seventh.

Two months on, Norris has managed to put the loss in perspective.

“I think I’m over it,” he says, with a rueful smile. “Of course, when people remind me of it, it’s still very disappointing because it was that first opportunity to win a race in F1.

“[It’s] still gutting. We made the wrong decision but I wouldn’t say I regret anything I did from my side. I did what I thought was best at the time.

“I never feel I can say it’s the team’s fault, but… I could have advised them better but if you just think of it in simple terms of me and Lewis had the same mentality of what we thought was best, and that was to stay on track.

“If it didn’t rain any more, I’m 99.999% sure I would’ve won the race. The only person who would’ve beaten me was Lewis if he managed to get past. And when he boxed [pitted], if it didn’t rain any more, I’m 100% sure I would’ve won race – he wouldn’t have been able to catch me.

“But the fact that I didn’t know there was more rain coming and he did is what allowed the [Mercedes] team to make a decision to say: You have to come in and box.”

Lando Norris
Norris came agonisingly close to victory in Russia this year

The work behind the scenes

The maiden win may be elusive for now – but on every other level, Norris has had a breakthrough season. It has not happened by accident. The McLaren is a difficult car – something Ricciardo has both proved and said while taking time to adapt to its peculiarities – and works at its best only on certain types of circuits. But Norris has generally found a way to get the best out of it.

“I worked hard over the winter to make a lot of these improvements,” he says. “One thing that made me very happy is seeing the improvements actually quite obviously have an effect and show straight away in terms of results.

“[I worked on] a lot of things with driving. So, [I have worked on] understanding the car even more… like Daniel has shown and said – how tricky it is to drive the car.

“And then there’s a lot more classroom-based stuff – going through the strategy in the races from that season and understanding how to maximise tyre-saving and all the sort of things you can do, because it’s not as simple as just going a bit slower and things like that. Spending a lot of time with a strategy team, with my engineers.

“Understanding all of this, is days, weeks of going through it together.”

The quality of Norris’ driving has left quite an impression. Hamilton praised him after the Russia race, saying there would be “many wins to come”. And when Norris became the latest driver to swap helmets with two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who has a collection in his museum, there was a message to go with it. The Spaniard wrote on the helmet he gave Norris that he was “a rock star”.

“It’s been very cool to get to know them a bit more,” Norris says. “Every now and again, I speak to Lewis on the parade laps and stuff like that.

“I guess because I still see them as more established drivers. Definitely [it] just boosts your confidence when you hear things from them because they’ve experienced every situation that I’m learning or have gone through this season.

“It doesn’t mean I get up the next day and say: ‘Lewis said this,’ and I just do loads better. But a lot of stuff in racing is also mental and how you think of things and approach things and it definitely helps a little bit with that and the more it helps the better.

“I was watching them on TV when I was, like, seven years old so it’s rewarding and cool to hear it from someone like that, people I looked up to for many years.”

A life change coming

As Ricciardo found his feet at his new team, Norris pretty much carried McLaren single-handedly in the first part of this season.

He was rewarded in May with a new contract, and now, very much established in F1, he is taking the next step and moving to Monaco.

He admits that it is for financial reasons, as a way to safeguard his future in a business that can be brutal if a driver’s career takes a downturn.

“It’s something obviously a lot of drivers do,” he says. “With just how racing is, you’ve seen with a lot of drivers how quickly things can go downhill. I still have to look after my life and things for my future, so that’s why.”

Norris resisted the move for a long time, preferring to stay close to the McLaren factory in Woking, Surrey, as he learned the ropes in F1. He says it was “not an easy decision, because it’s a life decision”. But he “feels like I’m in a more comfortable place to make this decision”.

But he emphasises he will be spending at least as much time in the factory as before: “Many things remain exactly the same, it’s just I’m based in a different place.”

George Russellm, Alex Albon and Norris
George Russell, Alex Albon and Norris have grown up together in junior formulae

‘I don’t think there will be as much Mr Nice Guy’

The move to Monaco will take place over the winter, and he will be settled in time for the 2022 season, when F1 heads into a new era with new cars designed to new regulations aimed at closing up the field and generating closer racing.

Norris says that after such a strong season he “feels very confident”, adding: “I feel like I can continue and make some improvements over the winter again and go into next year where I ended this one, which is better than where I started.”

Next year, he says, “will be so different because it’s going to be a very different car”. He can’t know how McLaren will fare with the new rules.

Norris has become known as a bit of a joker in F1. He’s down to earth and modest, he streams sim races on social media and chats to his fans, his image the very opposite of that of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense aggressive F1 driver.

His warm and friendly rivalry with former McLaren team-mate Carlos Sainz – particularly on the golf course – has become a running theme. And Norris is very close with the younger generation of drivers with whom he came up through the junior categories – Ferrari’s Charles Lerclerc, George Russell, who is moving to Mercedes next year, and Alex Albon, who is returning with Williams after a year out.

They are all great mates and enjoy a good laugh togetherexternal-link – but Norris says he’s ready for his relationships to change as the stakes become higher.

“We’re still at the point with George and myself and Alex and Charles [where] there’s a lot of compliments and we get along and we chat,” Norris says, “but things always change when you become competitive against each other.

“We’re still in a friendly phase because we never raced each other. But if all of sudden we go into next year and in the middle of the championship it’s me and Max and Lewis, I don’t think there will be as much Mr Nice Guy. That’s just the way it works.”

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