The early races can always deliver a slightly strange look to championship standings when an odd result skews matters in the opening round. But after two events, seeing a top two comprised of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton is not exceptional.
Lando Norris sitting in third, is.
Sure, Max Verstappen would be ahead of Norris if it weren’t for a reliability issue in the first race, but Norris has completely maximized his opportunities in Austria. And more than the results themselves, it’s the manner in which he has done it that has been so telling.
Race one was the complete weekend. Norris delivered a stunning qualifying performance to pull clear of the midfield, and then capped off an already-impressive race with an excellent lunge on Sergio Perez – who had a time penalty – and then set the fastest lap on the final lap to reel in Hamilton on his way to third.
And when it didn’t look like that dramatic finish could be repeated, he arguably went one better by overtaking both Lance Stroll and the ailing Perez on the final lap of last Sunday’s Styrian Grand Prix to secure fifth behind the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers.
The overtaking moves were clinical and decisive: something that can’t always be said of how Norris drove in his rookie season. And it comes from some diligent analysis of his own weaknesses during the winter.
“It’s hard to make sure of anything, but I’ve done the best job I can reviewing last year,” Norris told RACER in Austria. “Coming into last year, there wasn’t a lot that I could review what I’d done, other than some tests. There was nothing from the racing side that I could review and put into practice.
“Now, I was able to review everything I did last year. From FP1s and FP2s I could look at trends, tracks that I was good at, why, and I could look into everything. It’s just putting all of those things that I’d learned – and some are bigger than others – into practice coming into the pre-season tests, and then when we go to the different tracks.
“I don’t think you can ever be certain that you’re going to do better, but I had a lot of confidence that I worked on those weaknesses and those areas where I knew I wasn’t strong enough. I looked into why, the reasons for it and why Carlos was particularly good in certain areas, for example. I’d look into the info, I’d test it on the simulator, I’d prepare for it, and then when I get the opportunity to drive, we focus a session or two – or even a whole day – into focusing on it until I improve it.
“That’s what gives me confidence in terms of improving; that I’ve got information from last year to improve from. I can’t be certain, but I can be confident I can do a better job…”
You might note the way Norris is talking. He isn’t referencing his performances in Austria, and that’s because he isn’t speaking with hindsight. This is how the 20-year-old felt heading into the opening race, before he had the results as confirmation.
While Norris made headlines for being involved in an iRacing incident with Simon Pagenaud during lockdown, Carlos Sainz was very much in the limelight for reasons far removed from the virtual world when he was announced as a Ferrari driver from 2021 onwards. Yet after the first two races, Norris has put his teammate in the shade.
Looking back, the first signs that Norris was going to go up a level this season came during that same time, when he was isolated at home and spending a lot of time streaming his gaming exploits on Twitch. Acting on his own initiative, he spoke eloquently on topics such as racism and sexism despite not having others around him to constantly bounce ideas off, and demonstrated a growing confidence in himself as a person.
“I don’t know where I get the confidence from,” he admitted. “I don’t always have the most confidence in doing it, because I know for a lot of things there’s going to be a lot of backlash. Even with some of the stuff I posted; I knew there were going to be a lot of negative comments, and a lot of people unfollowed me.
“So I know for every single decision I make, there are going to be good comments and there’s gong to be bad. I know that. I guess the thing is, I get a lot of messages from fans and I try to read as many as I can, so that’s a good indication.
“I’m a believer in just trying to make everyone happy. I’m a happy guy, I love talking to the mechanics and speaking to the engineers, and I want to say that I’ve had a good effect on bringing some sort of positive effect to the whole team and making the atmosphere within McLaren much better than what it was.
“But it’s not just because of this team and because I want to do well. It’s the same away from the track – I just want people to be happy, and I believe in a lot of that. I want to make my fans happy and make them smile. Those are just my beliefs; that’s how I’ve been brought up. I believe I’ve been brought up very well, and have the right beliefs in a lot of areas.
“I’m not saying I’ve never been mean to some people, because I know I have! But at the same time I believe in what’s right, and I want to make people smile and be happy. I just want to say what I believe in and what I know a lot of people believe in, even when I do know that I’m going to get a lot of backlash from it.
“It doesn’t mean I’ve always got the most confidence in it, because some media would see the bad side of things and then they post that, and it makes me look bad, so I know that’s going to happen sometimes. But for the majority of the time I think I speak for what I believe in, and making everyone happy, and everyone should be treated equally. I just want to be a nice guy and make people smile, that’s all!”
On the whole, Norris has managed to do exactly that. And he’s managed to deliver his exceptional on track performances over the last few weeks while also taking a strong stance in the campaign to end racism. At 20, it can’t be easy to be talking about such topics from a position of influence, but he acknowledges the power he has as one of the sport’s brightest young stars and hopes he can use it positively.
“I don’t know if it’s a duty, I see it as a wider thing,” he said. “I want to be a Formula 1 driver, but I also see an opportunity for it to expand into other things. In some ways like Lewis has done – he’s not just known for being an F1 driver, he speaks out a lot in terms of supporting a lot of different things around the world. I’m not saying I want to be doing that, but I want to support in a lot of ways that I can because I know I’ve a big and very good following, and that I can make change.
“I see change through things that I do and say and comment on. Sometimes I change peoples’ minds, but I also lead a lot of people and I see that as a good thing and an opportunity to be a better person, and be known for doing the right thing to people other than just fans of motorsport.”
What’s surprising is that Norris has found such a voice despite openly admitting to a lack of self-confidence. Prior to the start of his F1 career, he feared he wouldn’t be up to the task, but as his obvious progress has proven, he’s managed to prevent it from having a negative impact.
“It’s not easy at all (to be open about those doubts),” he said. “I guess in some ways I want people to see that we’re still normal people, we’re not extra special in different circumstances. We’re talented in what we do and in some other things, but it doesn’t make us ‘above’ other people, or anything like that. Some people see it as a good thing, that it inspires some people to know that I struggle with things if they struggle with the same things.
“It’s not easy for me, even if I’m generally quite open with a lot of things. I still find it difficult to say these things, especially with being in F1 and so many people watching it. It’s not the easiest thing to say that I’ve suffered with self-confidence, and belief, and stuff like that.
“I have my own struggles. I’m not the best person in the world, I’m not superhuman and invincible. I’m still like a lot of people and suffer with things. Self-confidence and belief in myself has been one of them, but I hope it makes me relatable to a lot of people so a lot of people can believe in achieving things that I’ve achieved.”
If the last couple of weeks are any guide, that self-confidence and belief is only growing with each strong performance. It’s going to be special to watch what happens as it does.