Lando and Nando: Will this be the next master and apprentice F1 story?
And if so, what will it mean for Alonso - and McLaren?
Fernando Alonso will not be the only McLaren employee getting his first taste of endurance racing at next weekend’s Daytona 24 Hours.
Lando Norris – the team’s 18-year-old test and reserve driver – is sharing the #23 United Autosports machine with Alonso, forming a trio that also includes Phil Hanson.
If the combination of Alonso and Norris seems intriguing now, there’s every reason to believe that we will eventually look back on it as something truly special.
As a two-time Formula 1 world champion Alonso needs no introduction. But while he is McLaren’s current star, reigning European F3 champion Norris is the team’s future and the most promising British talent since Lewis Hamilton. Expect him to be in F1 by 2020, if not sooner.
Norris is already testing for the McLaren F1 team (Pic: Sutton)
With this in mind, Daytona creates an interesting dynamic. On one hand, this is master and apprentice stuff: Alonso as the established star, Norris the promising youngster ready to learn.
On the other, there potential for conflict down the road. Because if Lando is as good as many people believe, he could be the man who ends Alonso’s F1 career.
MASTER AND APPRENTICE: AN F1 HISTORY
This working relationship is nothing new in F1. Going right back to the fifties, you could pick out the great Juan-Manuel Fangio and his young teammate Stirling Moss at Mercedes-Benz in 1955. The Englishman was a 25-year-old with a single podium to his name, the Argentine a two-time world champion in his mid-forties.
Moss was the effective number two, even if this was not written into his contract, and he later stated that “the only man in the world with whom I would have agreed such a thing was Fangio.”
Their season together saw Moss win the first of his 16 grands prix by narrowly beating his teammate at Aintree. To this day the Englishman does not know whether it was a true victory or a gift from his mentor, though Fangio always insisted that Moss beat him fair and square.
A few decades on there was the pairing of Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert. They were Tyrrell teammates between 1970 and 1973, with Stewart the leader and Cevert his protégé.
Jackie Stewart leads home Francois Cevert at Zandvoort (Pic: Sutton)
By 1973 Cevert was edging closer to Stewart in terms of performance. The canny Scot knew it and with his third title in sight secretly planned to retire. Cevert would become Tyrrell’s number one and could use what he had learned from Stewart to fight for the 1974 world title.
But fate intervened. The 29-year-old Frenchman was killed during qualifying for the final race of the season at Watkins Glen and never had the chance to succeed his mentor. The team withdrew from the race and Stewart never drove in another grand prix, leaving him on a total of 99.
In modern F1 we can look at the relationship between Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa. The little Brazilian has spoken of the instrumental role that Schumacher played in his development during their season as teammates in 2006.
Massa: Schumacher was "a teacher" (Pic: Sutton)
Massa describes Schumacher as “a teacher” and “a master”, while admitting that the German was not especially happy when his young teammate was quicker than him.
This hints at the reasons why a master-apprentice dynamic might fail. For an example, we need only look to Alonso.
When McLaren paired the Spaniard – the reigning two-time world champion – with rookie Lewis Hamilton, it seemed like a match made in heaven.
The assumption was that Fernando would lead the way and pick up the victories, while Lewis learned from his more experienced teammate.
Hamilton had other ideas. He took on and beat Alonso in 2007, with the relationship between the two descending into chaos.
The Hamilton/Alonso partnership did not work out (Pic: Sutton)
The infamous Senna-Prost dynamic at McLaren ran a similar course. Like Alonso-Hamilton two decades later, there was never any prospect of the more experienced driver mentoring his upstart teammate.
WHAT MAKES IT WORK?
The simple answer is that for a master-apprentice relationship to work, the more experienced driver needs to believe that his protégé is not a meaningful threat.
In the case of Fangio-Moss and Stewart-Cevert, we can perhaps put this down to the camaraderie that existed in a far more dangerous era. Fangio knew Moss would not double-cross him, just as Stewart knew he could trust Cevert.
Modern F1 is a different beast, but this kind of relationship still lives or dies on the threat the younger driver poses. For all his talent Massa was not on the same level as an all-time great like Schumacher, so the dynamic worked. Would Michael have acted as mentor for a young Alonso or Hamilton? Categorically not, because he’d have quickly sussed out that these were genuine rivals.
This is the same reason that Alonso-Hamilton and Senna-Prost could never work. The less experienced driver was an immediate threat to his teammate and so war was quickly declared.
THE FUTURE OF MCLAREN
Norris will be pushing for a race seat very soon - but what will that mean for Alonso? (Pic: Sutton)
What does this tell us about ‘Nando and Lando’?
Daytona is an outlier – the two are sharing a car, so of course Alonso will do all he can to help Norris. In turn, the youngster will soak up everything he possibly can from the two-time champion.
But beyond the 24 Hours, there are a few ways things could play out.
If Norris wins the F2 title this term McLaren will need to put him in F1 for 2019. We’re dealing with hypotheticals, but first let’s assume that they decide to split with Stoffel Vandoorne and pair Alonso with Norris. Would we see a master-apprentice relationship develop?
If the 2019 McLaren-Renault proved quick, such a relationship would be unlikely. There might be a whopping 18 years between them, but if Norris is snapping at his heels Fernando will treat the youngster like any other competitive rival.
Another possible scenario is that Norris threatens to take Alonso’s place for 2019 or 2020. Say Fernando and Stoffel are level pegging in F1 and Lando wins F2. The team would save a huge chunk of change by dropping the veteran Spaniard and putting their faith in youth.
Will it be Alonso or Vandoorne who eventually makes way for Norris? (Pic: McLaren)
Were this a possibility, Alonso might have a word in Zak Brown’s ear suggesting that, by extending his contract, McLaren would ensure Norris the best F1 schooling possible. In this case he might be duty bound to mentor Norris in order to extend his own career at the top.
All of these are mere hypotheticals. At this point, it’s difficult to say just how McLaren will shape up over the next few seasons.
What we can say is that with Norris looking every bit the future star, and Alonso’s legend status already assured, the combination of both men at Daytona looks very exciting indeed.