Lando Norris: ‘Growing up watching Lewis, McLaren was my favourite car’ | Giles Richards

The 18-year-old British test and reserve driver is in a fierce battle in F2 and well on track for the step up to Formula One

For a driver tipped to be a star of the future in Formula One and indeed, one so young, Lando Norris seems impressively free from unnecessary ego – doubly so given the British driver is on what appears to be a fast track into F1. He is McLaren’s test and reserve driver and after this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix is expected to climb behind the wheel of their car for the test here on Tuesday. He is also in a fierce battle in F2, a competition fast honing his skills for the expected step up to the top series.

Still only 18, Norris is part of the McLaren young driver programme and is in demand. McLaren’s CEO, Zak Brown, revealed that three F1 teams had approached about him, including Toro Rosso as a potential replacement for Brendon Hartley. Brown rejected them because they wanted him freed from his contract with McLaren. The CEO, who is waiting to see which way Fernando Alonso jumps next season, is fully aware of the value of having such a talent on board.

Lando Norris drives for Carlin at the Monaco Formula Two race in May.
Lando Norris drives for Carlin at the Monaco Formula Two race in May. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty Images

All that might turn a young man’s head. But Norris remains refreshingly normal, with the same self-doubt familiar to teenagers. “I am up and down,” he says. “Sometimes it can go wrong and I come away happy and positive and know I can improve, and sometimes I think everything is terrible and that I am not very good. And that makes me annoyed with myself.”

There have, however, been many up moments. He was the youngest winner of the world karting championship in 2014, aged 14. He won the inaugural MSA formula championship the next season. In 2016 he took the Formula Renault 2.0 European Cup and the Eurocup Formula 2.0 title. Last year he was champion at the first attempt in European Formula 3, the youngest driver to achieve that.

This season’s F2, driving for Carlin, is proving a real challenge. He opened superbly with a win at Bahrain and held the lead until the sixth round in Austria. There he was overtaken by the British Mercedes reserve driver, George Russell, who went better still in the next round at Silverstone. But Norris managed second in difficult damp conditions at the Hungaroring on Saturday and the gap is down to 19 points.

Norris says that was an instructive experience. “I’ve learned to try and not be down as much when it goes wrong,” he says. “Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. In the past I would have been the opposite, I would have been annoyed. I am still a bit up and down but have learned you don’t need to be down so much.” This is a young man learning to deal with the brickbats a career in racing is going to throw at him and he is doing so well.

Norris was initially interested in bikes, with Valentino Rossi catching his eye and the Italian remains his hero. He grew up near Yeovil and a visit to the British kart championship at Clay Pigeon Raceway after school one day ignited something. His father was dispatched to buy a race suit so he could try it. “A guy had one to sell, it was massive with boots that were way too big and Dad bought it,” he recalls. “Not long after I got a kart and we had a bit of tarmac at home and I drove round that.”

He was seven at the time and a decade later was on McLaren’s books. Last season he drove at the test in Hungary and impressed, second only to Sebastian Vettel. McLaren were important to him as the team he had followed as a boy. “Growing up watching Lewis and Fernando, my favourite car was the McLaren in that chrome and fluorescent orange,” he says. “McLaren were one of the first teams I liked and supported.”

Brown has such confidence in him he put him in his United Autosports car for the Daytona 24 this year. Their ride was off the pace but Norris made his mark in a stint in the wet, during the night, outpacing the rest of the field. He has proved he has the chops repeatedly – from his titanic battle with Max Defourny in Formula Renault in Austria, where he put two wheels on the grass to make the decisive pass for the win, to the F2 at Silverstone, where he made a bravura move to pass Artem Markelov and Nyck de Vries round the outside of Vale for third with a damaged car.

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F1 is the target and, while he admits making it would be a big step, what he really wants are wins and the championship. If he finds himself in a seat at McLaren next season – and it is entirely possible he will – the task will be hard. Typically he is thinking about it in terms of the team, rather than himself.

“It is challenging knowing that, if you do join, a lot of work is needed to help the team develop the car,” he says. “If you do eventually get there, it makes a win sweeter. If you were there for two years and ended up wining a championship in year three or year four, that would make it a better win for the team and for yourself.”


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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