Lando Norris headed into the 2021 Formula 1 season with many questions hanging over him. That he merited his place on the grid and was capable of a high level of performance wasn’t in doubt, but what was unproven was whether he could be something more than that. The peaks were superb, they just didn’t come frequently enough.
The 21-year-old performed well against Carlos Sainz Jr in his first two seasons with F1, although overall was marginally the less impressive of a well-balanced pairing. With seven-times race winner Daniel Ricciardo coming in, how would Norris stack up? Could he deliver the level of consistency that had previously eluded him? Would he secure a long-term future with McLaren? These are the classic questions a driver might face in their third season, particularly when driving a car that is towards the sharp end, and those weekends when a driver goes missing are very obvious.
Norris has been impossible to ignore so far this season. The last of the questions has already been answered emphatically, with a new McLaren deal announced in mid-March. Such has been Norris’s impact this year that some have questioned whether he has tied himself down for too long to a team that is not currently winning races, but securing a longer-term stay at one of F1’s most upwardly-mobile teams is, on balance, a positive for him. And it’s certainly good news for McLaren.
The battle with Ricciardo has also gone Norris’s way more spectacularly than most envisaged. He has comprehensively outperformed the Australian, outscoring him 101-40 with an average advantage of three-tenths of a second in qualifying. Even though Ricciardo is performing more strongly in the races, Norris still has an advantage. That shone through at Paul Ricard recently where Norris pulled away from Ricciardo rapidly once he got past him.
While there is an asterisk against that given Ricciardo is still struggling to adapt to the requirements of the McLaren, there’s no doubt Norris is performing at a very high level and is well-tuned to the specific demands of the car. That’s not damning with faint praise, simply recognition that he’s doing a superb job. Even when (and if, for that matter) Ricciardo gets on top of the car, there’s no guarantee that puts him at or beyond Norris’s level, although that’s a question that has yet to be answered.
But the most important thing is that Norris has become a more consistent performer. His peaks were always high, but after having made a good step forward on that score in 2020, he has made another this year. That dependability is what elevates him into the next strata of drivers, meaning he’s now being talked of more frequently in the potential world champion bracket.
His performance during the recent Austrian Grand Prix weekend was a case in point. He came within five-hundredths of beating Max Verstappen to pole position in a McLaren that is not quite at the same level even at a circuit that plays to its strengths. He translated that into his fourth podium finish in Formula 1, albeit after a five-second penalty for forcing Red Bull’s Sergio Perez off the track.
To achieve this, Norris had to get everything right. First, during qualifying, he had to nail all three segments, which he did by getting through Q1 with just one run, then setting his Q2 time on the medium tires to ensure he was on the right compound for the start, and finally by delivering an excellent lap in Q3.
“It just again shows that he made a great step forward again this year as a driver,” said McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl after qualifying. “He is able to adapt to these challenges. He has the confidence to go into these laps knowing what he has to do, what he has to trust, together with his engineering team. That’s great to see, and impressive.”
It’s particularly significant given that qualifying was an area where Norris hasn’t always nailed it this year, albeit by very slender margins. He produced a superb lap at Imola that would have been good enough for third had he not exceeded track limits by just under 30mm at Piratella, relegating him to seventh behind Ricciardo. But in the race, after Ricciardo was correctly ordered to let him past, Norris ended up finishing third.
Even on the first Red Bull Ring weekend, the Styrian Grand Prix, Norris wasn’t completely convinced he’d got the most out of qualifying, But he got more out of an upgraded McLaren on the second weekend and felt he couldn’t have done any better – even though he did say he didn’t believe that the perfect lap is possible.
But in the races, he has shown excellent judgement. After his first year in Formula 1, he was charged with being a little more aggressive in battle after having, at times, been too conservative. That’s a sensible approach in your rookie season, but with experience comes the expectation of judging the risk/reward tradeoff more precisely.
During 2020, the results on that score were a mixed bag with some good days and some bad days, but this has been a strength this year. It has allowed him to turn less promising grid positions, and even race positions on days when he didn’t have a great start, into superb results.
It’s perhaps best to describe this as controlled aggression, the ability to pick the right battles and know when to attack and when to consolidate. This is what has allowed him to rack up results relentlessly, pocketing four more points in nine races than he did in all 17 last year. While that also depends on the McLaren-Mercedes package being reliable, he’s shown he has that capacity to deliver close to his maximum week-in, week-out.
There have been multiple examples of his good judgement in races this year. In the first Red Bull Ring event, he let Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez past in the first stint without much of a fight because he understood his real fight was with the Ferraris. That helped to ensure he was out of reach of Carlos Sainz in the closing stages. But on the second weekend, the improved pace of the McLaren meant he could hope to race the Mercedes drivers, so he was less of a pushover. Having said that, you could argue the Turn 4 incident with Perez, which cost him five seconds at the first pitstop and allowed Bottas to jump him, was avoidable.
We also saw Norris’s good judgement earlier in the season when he passed Ricciardo on the first lap in Bahrain and then repulsed the recovering Hamilton in the closing stages for longer than might be expected. There, he hung on, but not to the point where it placed him in jeopardy of losing third place once Hamilton was ahead.
In Portugal, he didn’t have a great start but a bold pass on Esteban Ocon, then Carlos Sainz and, temporarily, Sergio Perez, ensured he finished at the front of the midfield group. Only in Spain, where he was impeded by Nikita Mazepin in Q1, burned up an extra set of softs and therefore had to run a scrubbed sets for the crucial first run in Q3, did he struggle. Even then, he pulled off three good passing moves in his run to eighth.
In Monaco, his qualifying form picked up with fifth on the grid, leading to another podium finish. He then delivered a trio of fifth places before that Austria podium. Big mistakes have been non-existent, and he has been key to McLaren’s push to repeat last year’s third place in the constructors’ championship.
He’s also become more effective technically. Norris has always been a more serious operator than his at-times whimsical off-track persona might suggest, but as he’s built experience both of F1 and life, he’s become a focused and diligent worker. He has always had a more deep understanding of car dynamics and driving styles than perhaps his public persona implied, and sharpened those skills during his alliance with Sainz. The two drivers had different limitations – Norris struggling more with mid-corner understeer, Sainz when the rear wasn’t stable on entry – but the differing approaches allowed both to learn. His growing experience has allowed him to improve technically and as a team leader.
Norris has always been fast, something that was clear throughout his junior career and when he first landed in F1 – putting his McLaren in Q3 on debut in Australia in 2019. But since then he’s grown, and the timing of Sainz’s departure couldn’t have been better for him.
That’s not because he didn’t work well with Sainz, because he did, but simply because it allowed him to break out of the role of the junior partner. With two seasons under his belt, he started this season as the incumbent driver who knew the team and the characteristics of its cars like the back of his hand, so he knew he had to make the most of that. He has risen to the challenge.
It’s still difficult to say just how good Norris will become. He’s operating at a very high level and is unquestionably capable of winning races. Indeed, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t go on to become a multiple grand prix winner.
As for being a world champion, for most drivers you can only really tell once they have the opportunity in a car that is capable of being right at the front every single weekend. That’s a test that likely lies in Norris’s future, but what matters for now is that he’s lived up to, and perhaps even, exceeded expectations in taking on the challenges of 2021. And that can only serve to enhance his reputation.