Lando Norris’ ascension into a Formula 1 race seat with McLaren had a sense of inevitability about it.

While the 18-year-old may have been surprised by the timing of news - delivered as he was “just about to get my bag of Haribos out” ahead of Sunday’s race at Monza, he recalled - for the majority of the F1 world, seeing Norris step up as the latest British racer was the expected news.

Formula 1 - Circuit Of The Americas

CrashTV: 
Video Thumbnail: 

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has been a big fan of Norris’ for years, working with the youngster prior to either of their arrivals at McLaren. He is young, likeable, marketable - and, most importantly, fast.

For those reasons, plus the fact he is British and will debut with McLaren, the comparisons between Norris and four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton are natural. Norris is very aware of this: “Growing up, I always watched Lewis, and aspired to have some attributes from him, mainly his speed. I think his raw pace and speed overall is probably I’d say the best out of everyone on the whole grid at the moment.

“I think being compared to someone who could be about to win five world championships, he’s won four, I don’t think it’s a bad thing in any way. As long as you’re getting compared on the good stats and not the bad stats.”

While Norris stressed that his move to McLaren is “very different” to Hamilton’s, given the team’s current struggles compared to its strength back in 2007, the footsteps he is following in are easy to pick out.

But Norris will also be following the path trod by three other F1 talents: Sergio Perez, Kevin Magnussen, and Stoffel Vandoorne. And it is not a path that had a particularly happy ending.

Since Hamilton stepped up at McLaren in 2007, Magnussen and Vandoorne are the only other drivers to graduate from its junior programme into an F1 seat with the team. Magnussen lasted just a single season with the team, one that started on a high with a second-place finish in Australia but finished with the Dane being dumped to make way for Fernando Alonso.

Vandoorne, meanwhile, will depart McLaren’s F1 team at the end of this year after two seasons, a period in which he has failed to finish a race any higher than seventh.

Like Norris, both had glittering junior records, making them stand out as F1 stars to be. And yet both were chewed up and spat out by McLaren in less than two years.

And then there is Perez. Signed as Hamilton’s replacement for 2013, Perez joined off the back of a breakout season that saw him score three podium finishes and come close to winning in Malaysia for Sauber. Again, the hype and subsequent expectation was significant - and again, he too was jettisoned after just one podium-less year, making way for Magnussen. By the start of the 2019 season, McLaren will have been through nine drivers in the space of 10 years.

In a period when the team is still very much in the recovery stage following its sharp decline in performance, it may appear to be a tough time for Norris to be joining. Is there not the concern he could follow a similar path to the trio of McLaren cast-offs from the last five years?

Not for Norris. To him, the perspectives and expectations have changed as McLaren prepares to start a new era in 2019.

“I think McLaren need a fresh start, and I think as a team, they need two young drivers who are willing to say: ‘We don’t need to win, we don’t want to win,’ let’s say, within the first two years of joining the team,” Norris explained.

“I think that’s a very realistic goal for both Carlos [Sainz Jr., his 24-year-old teammate for 2019] and myself. We’re not going to be winning next year, and probably not the year after. It’s going to be a few years before we get back to where we should be. Of course I want to say I’m better than the other drivers, but I have something to prove, whether it’s something against Carlos or just in general over the next year. It’s too hard to say what’s going to happen.

“I think as long as I do a good job and put in all my effort to proving that I’m worth it, then everything should be fine. I’ve been given two FP1s, a couple of tests, three tests, four tests, and I think within those few tests, I’ve proved that I’ve done a good enough job, especially in the FP1s where it really counts and matters, that I’m able to deliver when I need to and I’ve got the pace.

“They want to help me develop into however they need me to be, pretty much. Every driver is different, so I just hope whatever I do is going to be good enough.

“It’s not that I just want to be with McLaren. I want to win with McLaren. I don’t think it’s going to be in the next two years, I think it’s more of a longer project than just being with the team for one year.”

Team boss Brown is also treating Norris’ promotion in a similar fashion. While there is naturally expectation, there is also an anticipation for errors and mistakes, typical of any rookie.

“We have to be very careful not to set the bar and expectation so high that Free Practice 1 in Australia, we’ve all come to conclusions on whether he’s the next superstar or not,” Brown said of Norris.

“We need to give him some time. He’s going take some time to settle in. He’s going to go to some tracks he’s never seen before. He’s going to have some shunts.

“That’s one of the things we brought in [sporting director] Gil de Ferran for, the human performance of the team and the drivers.

“Maybe historically we’ve not been great with young drivers because of the environment that we’re in. So we’re looking for Gil to make sure we learn from some of the mistakes we’ve maybe made in the past.”

McLaren has made a number of breaks with the past - the Ron Dennis-led past - in the past two years. The overhaul of its driver line-up is just the latest part of this.

“Everyone has got a different style. My style and our style, I think you’ve got to make race car drivers comfortable and let them operate in a manner which you think you can get the most out of them,” Brown explained.

“If you look at Alonso, I think Alonso is a better example of how McLaren operates today. Obviously when Fernando was here 10 years ago, that relationship didn’t work. Then here we are having pretty poor three years, and I think you’d all say you haven’t seen him with a smile on his face as often as he has had.

“I think that’s because we’re letting him operate in a manner in which I think he enjoys the environment and we get the most out of him. I think each driver’s different. Some respond to being very difficult to them, others respond when they need an arm around them, and I try and create an environment which is unique to each driver, how do they operate best, and then give them that environment.”

Norris is very much a part of the new environment Brown has pushed to foster at Woking, having been nurtured in it since his arrival in February 2017. As such, there will not be the same kind of acclimation the considered outside options, such as Esteban Ocon or (to return) Perez, may have required, again playing into the reasoning for why Norris was given the nod.

Norris also said he is eager to talk with Vandoorne about where things have gone wrong this year, in order to try and avoid the same pitfalls, and get some answers for “why they don’t think he was good enough, why they think I could be better, whatever I can to help myself improve and whatever they can do to help myself improve” - he doesn’t want to become another statistic.

“Stoff, I rate as a pretty damn good driver, probably higher than most other drivers on the grid. But I think getting put against Fernando, going into Formula 1 when McLaren are probably at their worst ever, it’s not easy,” Norris added.

“Coming from championships where you can be in such a good team, always challenging for the win, and then going into a category where there’s so many good drivers, out of how many people and drivers in the world to be there with only 20 drivers, they’re all pretty damn good.

“I think it’s just an unlucky circumstance basically that he was thrown in at probably the deepest end possible. But I think anything I can learn from what he’s not done well enough, what he’s done good - even from the FPs I’ve done, I’ve already learned from him.

“There are things altogether which can help me and hopefully not go down the same path.”

While Norris may have a similar kind of early hype to the likes of Magnussen and Vandoorne, he is arriving with different expectations and in a very different time for the team. Magnussen was anticipated to be competitive from day one, with his P2 finish on debut perhaps skewing expectations further.

Vandoorne arrived in the midst of Honda’s struggles, yet there was still that glimmer of hope that, with a Renault engine in the back from 2018, the McLaren car could be competitive enough to fight at the front. Alas, power wasn’t the team’s big issue this year...

If Norris is only a regular points scorer at best next year, then so be it. He knows that. McLaren knows that. He is unlikely to make the immediate splash Lewis Hamilton did back in 2007 - but there is time for the success and greater glories to follow in years to come as part of this ‘New McLaren’.

If this mentality and thinking holds, then Norris is highly unlikely to follow the footsteps of Perez, Magnussen and Vandoorne. Unlike those three, Norris arrives at a time when McLaren isn’t scrambling to make an immediate return to the front, the team instead looking more long-term.

And with time on his side, Norris has a great chance to develop into a fine grand prix racer and deliver on the promise that has prompted McLaren to show such confidence in him for 2019.

 

Comments

Loading Comments...