McLaren’s F1 Lando Norris: ‘We’ve not started the last three years with confidence’
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
It is an axiom of professional sport that a competitor who ends a season with a strong run of form is likely to start the next season as the one to beat. That would perhaps be a stretch in Formula One as this season closes, given how dominant Max Verstappen has been. But McLaren driver Lando Norris has made a strong case as a contender for race wins next season — and maybe even a tilt at the F1 title.
The 24-year-old Briton, now in his fifth season in F1, has been in scintillating form in the second half of the Grand Prix schedule, regularly challenging Verstappen for pole position and following him home in second place.
“Red Bull and Max are doing too good a job at the minute,” Norris says. “We’re getting there, we’re getting closer. Since we brought this upgrade [on the car], I think we’ve been the second highest scoring team.”
Prospects did not look too promising at the start of the season. McLaren was off the pace in the opening round in Bahrain and, arguably, the second slowest team on the grid. But a change of team leadership over the winter, as Andrea Stella, once Michael Schumacher’s race engineer at Ferrari, replaced Andreas Seidl as McLaren team principal, meant a change of approach and methodology behind the scenes. When McLaren brought significant updates to its car in June, it took off. Norris has outscored everyone except Verstappen in the 12 races since, taking seven podium finishes.
“To go from where we were in Bahrain to getting close and fighting a Red Bull, I think are very good signs for us,” Norris says. “And we know we still have plenty more things to come next year. So I’m excited. We’ve not started the last three years with confidence and now we’re on the right path. I do look forward to next year already, with what we can achieve. It’s reassuring to know we made an unmatched amount of progress compared to any other teams this season.”
Norris was born and raised in Bristol. His father, Adam, was the founding director of Hargreaves Lansdown’s pensions arm Pensions Direct and ran its advisory service. Norris senior stepped down in 2008, not long after the company floated, and began to throw his energy and resources at his son’s karting career. Norris, while a pupil at Millfield School, won European and World titles in karting and switched to cars at the age of 15. He won the British F4 championship and caught the eye of McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who nurtured him through the junior categories up to F1.
“His natural speed, I’ve seen it from day one,” says Brown. He cites Norris’s other qualities as: “Maturity and race craft. He rarely makes mistakes and when he does, they’re fairly insignificant. He’s very calm under pressure — which is great for a 24-year-old. You don’t hear him on the radio getting overly excited. When drivers do that, it can throw them off their game”.
Norris has yet to win a Grand Prix after 103 starts. He famously came close in 2021, leading the majority of the Russian Grand Prix until rain intervened. The team called him in for wet tyres. Norris overruled them and lost the race in the closing laps to Hamilton, who had made the tyre switch. Norris took full responsibility.
He had been desperate to win after being forced to follow home his teammate at the time, Daniel Ricciardo, at the previous round in Italy — McLaren’s first win since 2012.
Despite early problems on the track, Norris insists that the team have always given him immense encouragement which has been a major part of his and the team’s turnaround. “It’s just that we’ve been a little up and down, some things go well, some things hold us back. Now, we are in the best place we’ve been in for quite a while.”
Norris is entitled to feel confident heading into the off-season. Verstappen remains the reference point, but Norris may find that his greatest challenge next year comes from within his own team. Oscar Piastri, his 22-year-old teammate, has had a remarkable debut season and has even outperformed Norris on occasions.
“Oscar’s doing a very good job and he’s pushed me,” says Norris. “I think I’ve done a good job in helping him adapt and get up to speed. We’re always open and respectful with each other. Of course, we’re competitive and want to beat each other, which is normal.”
Piastri looks a generational talent. The growing competition between him and Norris is sure to be one of the highlights of the 2024 season.