Lando Norris: "We can't fight the top three teams"
It was a fairly damp Sunday at the 2019 Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard when we caught up with McLaren’s Lando Norris, less than an hour before he was due to pilot the legendary McLaren M8D up the Goodwood Hill. The young Brit is ten races into his Formula 1 career, driving for a team that has employed the likes of Mario Andretti, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Häkkinen, Kimi Räikkönen, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. No pressure, then.
Having been associated with the team since 2017 Norris became McLaren’s official test driver in 2018, just as McLaren’s association with Honda was coming to an end, with Renault power on the books for 2019. Along with fellow team newcomer Carlos Sainz Jr., Norris is leading something of a revival for the team from Woking. After a few years where scoring points was a rarity, and making it as far as the second qualifying session was something of a dream, McLaren now seems to be on a slightly more forward-placed foot.
Bristol-born Norris made a name for himself in junior formulas, winning in F3 and Formula Renault before a second-placed finish in F2 – behind fellow Brit and now Williams driver George Russell – last year, so how is he finding the step up to F1?
“It’s not been too bad. Obviously I was integrated with McLaren for almost three years so I knew everyone – I knew reasonably well what I had to do car-wise, strategy stuff, how to talk to my engineers and so on, so it’s not been too bad. I’m busy a lot with the days away – travelling, media, PR, training, there’s a lot of things – so in terms of how busy I am it’s taken a ramp up. In terms of getting used to the F1 surroundings and on the weekends it’s not too bad, and I think I’ve adapted reasonably well.”
And the racing? “The first race I did this season in Australia, I was super nervous because it was my first race in F1. There are expectations from me, from McLaren of me, and on McLaren – people want the team to do well, and I have to deliver it. Initially I struggled with it, but as soon as I went to Bahrain I was ten times better and more relaxed. Every race I’ve done it’s been nicer and nicer. I’m just getting more and more experience, I have more of an idea of what I need to do in practice sessions, qualifying and the race, and I don’t have to worry so much! I feel more relaxed and at home.”
As Norris suggests, there’s a lot of expectation as a McLaren driver. This is a team used to winning races and championships, and the trophy cabinet in Woking is an entire corridor filled with famous names from the past. After the nadir of 2015-17, it’s tempered somewhat, but fans still expect to see McLaren orange nearer the top of the grid than the bottom.
“It’s still difficult for us to get into Q3. For the top three teams it’s relatively easy, for us a couple or hundredths and we can be in or out. We still need more time, we want to find more pace to be able to easily make it into Q3 but in comparison to the last few years on average we’re doing better. It is getting better and we’re going in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go.
“When we get a P6, it’s like a mini-win because we can’t fight the top three teams – apart from one of the cars, but it’s being there to capitalise on things. But becoming the best of the rest is our aim and consolidating that position. Getting a P6 is a little victory for us in terms of what we can achieve.”
Of course Norris is also an avid sim racer. If you enjoy racing online, you’d stand a good chance of meeting him in a race (if you’re good enough) during his weekends off. With the busier F1 schedule, is he still keeping up with his sim racing? “Not as much as I would like! I still do what I can – I still enjoy it, I still race with the online team, I still do what I want to do when I’m home, but I’m definitely not on it as much as I was the past two years.”
McLaren itself is a big supporter of “esports”: organised sporting competitions in the virtual environment. Not only does it have its own sim racing team that competes in the F1 esports series, McLaren Shadow, it also holds competitions to find new sim-racing talent. “I think it’s something we’re leading at the moment. Obviously you have more and more competitions starting – you have F1 esports and more big competitions, but at the moment I think McLaren is bringing in the most people and ending up with some very good drivers such as Rudy.”
Norris is referring to Rudy van Buren, winner of the “World’s Fastest Gamer” event in 2017 and now a member of the McLaren team. Van Buren went on to compete in the real-world Race of Champions event after winning WFG: “He beat me, so he did reasonably well! He’s a good driver, and I knew him a little bit before World’s Fastest Gamer, so I know how he works and drives, and it’s cool to see him go from sim-racing to driving an actual car. It’s hopefully something that’s going to be happening more and more.
“It’s pretty cool – I know a lot of the drivers on the team from before they joined McLaren, but it’s a cool thing to see. I’ll be going to the F1 Arena to see the draft, so it’s still something I’m involved with and something McLaren tries to link me with because I have a good idea of what’s good and bad and how to find a driver out of hundreds of thousands.”
And what of his drive in the M8D? Later in the day, he told Goodwood’s Ed Foster “It was awesome – I didn’t get out of second gear, I was a bit nervous!”
Words by Andrew Evans, photography by Tom Shaxson, Jochen Van Cauwenberge and Motorsport Images.