McLaren is one of the sporting world’s great sleeping giants, but recently it has stirred. While winless in eight Formula 1 seasons, it was the third-best team in 2020, and if and when it does return to winning ways, there’s every chance that Lando Norris will be integral to that success.
A young British driver potentially hitting the big time with McLaren? Given Sir Lewis Hamilton’s astonishing achievements at the start of his F1 career, that story has a familiar ring to it, even if Norris’s trajectory is a very different one.
The 21-year-old from Somerset is already a McLaren linchpin. In just two F1 campaigns, he has stood on the podium, racked up consistent points and stacked up well against Ferrari-bound team-mate Carlos Sainz. While Norris’s all-round performance didn’t match that of the more experienced Spaniard, there wasn’t much in it.
This year, Norris has the chance to establish himself as McLaren’s main man for the long term. The trouble is, Sainz’s replacement is Daniel Ricciardo, a seven-time grand prix winner with a big reputation for being one of the best in F1.
“That’s my aim for the next few years, to be the main guy in the team,” says Norris – often a light-hearted interview subject but one who switches into a far more serious mode as you probe for detail. “There are going to be things Daniel will bring to the team; he’s going to be able to say some things that I can’t add, because I don’t have the 10 years of experience he has. He has been with different teams, he has won races and he has many more podiums [than me], and I can’t pretend to be better, because experience is a huge factor.
“But there are also a lot of things that I know and am able to lead on that Daniel can’t, because of my time with McLaren. It’s not just on-track stuff; it’s the mentality of the team and how I’ve impacted the team itself from a mental point of view, [with the] mechanics and engineers and the charisma and characters that we have within the team.
“I feel very much at home with McLaren, so absolutely my aim is to stay with them and be on this journey from struggling those few years ago, being part of that improvement and, over the next few years, taking those next couple of steps.”
Norris has no shortage of weaponry with which to take on Ricciardo. He’s undoubtedly fast, and that’s the most important element of any racing driver’s armoury. In raw numbers, he has just had the better of Sainz over the past two years on that score – although if you adjust last year’s figures to remove anomalies when external factors distorted the picture, Norris was on average just over four-hundredths of a second slower. Even in F1, where fractions are everything, that’s not a big deficit.
Where he’s particularly impressive is in his ability to hustle a tricky car. When he was first up for the McLaren race seat, having been signed as a junior in early 2017, he showed his prowess in seven free practice runs on grand prix weekends in 2018. He showed that he could extract pace from the car that otherwise needed Fernando Alonso’s superhuman talents to make work. Watching his first outing at Spa-Francorchamps from Les Combes, the difference between the way he hung onto the car and incumbent Stoffel Vandoorne’s struggles was impossible to ignore. So the raw material has always been there.