McLaren has had a week for popular announcements. The Gulf livery went down a storm on Sunday, Felix Rosenqvist’s Indy 500 color scheme was similarly well-received a day later, and today it announced a new long-term deal for Lando Norris.
I’ll have to admit that as a boy from Somerset in the South West of England – the same county Lando is from – I was a little bit biased from the outset. I followed his career closely as he started making waves in karts, so by the time he got his first McLaren deal it was really exciting to see him reach Formula 1.
But watching him progress also meant seeing the areas he needed to improve, and during that first season it seemed a lot like he was finding his feet. His performances were really good, and McLaren was guiding him particularly well. His first contract extension in mid-2019 felt like a formality and a show of confidence from McLaren’s side, but today’s news is different.
What has really impressed – and surprised – me about Norris has been the way his potential seems to grow with each passing season. His improvement rate has been very strong, and he has been pulling out ever-better performances and flashes of one-lap speed that make you think he really could evolve into championship material. Give him the right car, and he’s getting close to that level already.
So there was bound to be interest from other teams if he became available, and that means the latest contract is as much a show of faith from Norris in McLaren and its long-term potential as it is the other way round.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily super, super close (to winning titles),” Norris said. “I think there’s still quite a bit of work to do. The thing is, next year it’s so unknown with the new regulations, I have no idea what we are going to be like. I don’t think anybody knows because so many things are changing.
“I think you are still going to see Mercedes and Red Bull at the top, just because they have so many resources and have been able to focus so early on next year’s car, so they’ve been able to take advantage of being the leaders and just being the best teams in F1. So you’re still going to see them at the front.
“That’s my goal, that’s what I want to achieve by the time I finish in F1. It’s not something where I’m saying, ‘next year, or a couple years after that we are going to be winning that’. We’ll still be aiming; I’m just hoping we will be closer than we are now.
“I’m happy, and it’s not like I’m saying to the guys, ‘we need this year and if it’s not, I’m leaving’. I’m happy to stick around for these few years and keep plugging away and working hard towards it, because I think it will make it even sweeter, it will make it a better story. It will just make it even more special. It’s not saying that I want that in the next few years, it’s more of an end goal.”
Perhaps one of the things that makes Norris so endearing, and therefore a reason for why the continuation of his McLaren stay has proved so popular, is his honesty and candor, and that extends to when he’s discussing his motivations relating to the team.
Yes he wants to become world champion, but it’s not at any cost. He also wants to enjoy the journey.
“As much as I want to win races and win championships and so on, the other thing that’s just as important for me is making sure I enjoy where I am,” he says.
“I’m sure I would enjoy wherever I go – meeting new people and so on – but getting along with people and having those friendships and those relationships with people, all my mechanics, my engineers, everybody back at the factory… everything works so well at the moment.
“That’s just the kind of stuff I like. So just as much as winning and success means to me, enjoyment and having fun, enjoying my life, is just as important.
“That comes along with the loyalty side of it – seeing the same mechanics, seeing the same engineers, working with those people for many years – and that’s where I get a lot of it from. I had that with Carlin, I had that with the team I was with in karting, so it means a lot. To say now, there’s nothing that I’d like more than to continue being where I am.
“I love it, I’m enjoying it a lot, having good fun, so that means maybe more than the success; the enjoyment side of it. If I didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t like the position I was in, then I would want to change that and make sure I was in a position that I was really enjoying it.
“I just want to enjoy my life and make the most of it. A lot of that is down to being with the people you enjoy working with. And I guess the perk of it is writing a story together and having a history together.”
Zak Brown’s support has been central to Norris’ trajectory so far, and that backing has proven to be very well-placed. And the Californian continues to build a team that looks capable of being at the sharp end of F1 in the future. In 21-year-old Norris, it also has a talent with all the attributes to match that progression and deliver the results when the car allows.
So it will have been a no-brainer for both sides to continue, but someone still had to make the first step to sound out an extension, and it turns out it was Norris who first broached the subject with his CEO. He admits it wasn’t his smoothest performance…
“That was something I don’t really know myself, what it’s like,” he says.. “It was actually something I brought up when I went to dinner with Zak a while ago. I don’t really know what to do, or what to say, it was like talking a little bit about the future ,and I was like, ‘about those future years, is it something you want to start talking about now or later in the season?’
“It was literally like I don’t know when is a good time, or how to bring it up. It was like a guy talking to a girl for the first time. It was a bit awkward, I didn’t know how to start the conversation. But I think at that time they had already started talking about it as a team between Zak and Andreas (Seidl), and it was something that I wanted to get out of the way as soon as possible.
“So we started talking and it all flowed from there, but it was just a bit of a weird one for me to bring up, because I had not necessarily been in that position before. The only other time I guess was signing and then after my first year, just extending the contract that we had. This was the first one where my contract was coming right to the end and I was like ‘I don’t know what to do!’ It was kind of funny, but I’m happy we got to the deal in the end.”
Norris can be sure that McLaren’s happy too, and rightly so. It’s very much a case of the right driver for the team, and the right team for the driver, at the right time.