While an intriguing battle between Mercedes and Red Bull has dominated the Formula 1 headlines so far in 2021, Lando Norris has enjoyed a somewhat under-the-radar, yet sensational start to the season. 

Not too far behind an intense scrap for early superiority in the title race between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Norris has caught the eye and is already being branded as one of the drivers of the season. 

The Briton has finished inside the top five at all three races so far - taking fourth in Bahrain, third and a second career podium at Imola, before following that up with another ‘best of the rest’ fifth-place finish in Portugal.

After making his best start to an F1 season yet, Norris sits a remarkable third in the drivers’ championship, ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez

A string of impressive early performances has been met by high praise, with McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl saying he believes that Norris has taken the "next step as a driver” in what is just his third season in F1. 

While McLaren does not appear to have a car that is regularly capable of beating Mercedes and Red Bull, there have been promising glimpses that the team could mix it up with the pace-setting teams on a very good day. 

At Imola, Norris was on course for his best F1 qualifying result having set the third-fastest time - just 0.043s off Hamilton’s pole position - in Q3 before his lap was deleted for exceeding track limits, leaving him seventh on the grid. His strong pace continued into Sunday on his run to the podium that featured an on-track battle with Hamilton. 

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So, if all the stars aligned, could McLaren end its nine-year wait for a win this season? 

“I think we’re still quite a way off, in terms of actual performance,” was Norris’s response to that very question from Crash.net during an interview conducted with select publications ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix last Friday.

“I think Imola ended up being a very good track for us, it was definitely better than Bahrain. There are some tracks where we’ll be closer but I think Imola might be as good as we might get. We still have to wait and see. I think Imola was just a very good showing for us throughout the whole weekend, more in qualifying and the race. 

“But you never know. If we can improve the car a little bit throughout the year and tracks suit us perfectly with weather conditions and we get a bit of luck then I can’t say no, but in terms of pure performance, I want to say it’s a little bit too far away at the moment.”

Despite only being in the sport for three short years, Norris has become a hugely popular driver both in and out of the paddock, having created a good guy image throughout his career. 

Indeed, his level of engagement with fans on social media, virtual gaming exploits during last year’s lockdown and the bromance he struck with former teammate Carlos Sainz - despite what Netflix's Drive to Survive might tell you - has helped lead him to be considered as one of F1’s ‘nice guys’.

Norris is the epitome of the modern-day F1 driver and people find it incredibly easy to relate to him, especially the younger generation of motorsport fans. 

Yet while an element of ruthlessness is considered necessary in order to be successful in such a competitive arena, Norris is out to prove that the idea ‘nice guys finish last’ is not true. 

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“Jenson [Button] was world champion and he’s probably one of the nicest guys ever, so I don’t think it’s a true saying,” he points out. 

"Of course I try to be nice and I have fun when I can, but it doesn’t mean when I’m driving the car I’m the same. I do everything I can to win a race and I’ll do everything I can to be on the podium. I take it as seriously as I have to. 

“I am who I am. I’m a different person, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t try as hard, or that I don’t do all I can to win a race or get on the podium when I have to. People can believe it, but in my opinion, it’s not true.” 

And Norris has no plans to deviate away from his natural character. 

After all, it is helping him to build a real sense of camaraderie at a McLaren team on its way back to the top and aiming to rediscover its previous winning routine following the misery of its recent uncompetitive spell. While clear progress has been made since the end of 2018, McLaren is still seeking a victory that has eluded it since the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix. 

As well as ensuring he is getting the most out of himself on track, Norris has put a huge amount of effort into strengthening relationships with as many people as he can within the team - ranging from his mechanics to staff working back at McLaren’s factory in Woking. 

This was perhaps highlighted best after a disappointing race at the 2020 Hungarian Grand Prix, where, in contrast to many drivers who would have already been on a flight back home following their various engineering and media commitments, Norris was pictured, screwdriver in hand, helping his mechanics strip down his car.

But this wasn’t simply a show to make himself look good. Norris takes genuine satisfaction and enjoyment from his hands-on approach to getting involved in a team environment the 21-year-old describes as being like a “family”. 

“For sure the longer you are with a team the more it feels like home, the more it feels like family,” Norris explains. 

“I feel very comfortable and very at home because I know all the mechanics. I know basically everyone back at the factory. We’re just a big team and we all work together. We all speak to each other when we can and I think that’s very important. 

“It’s something not every driver does, but the more you can do this, the better everyone works together and the more chance we and I have of achieving our goals together. Whether that’s a win, the world championship, or the constructors’ championship. 

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“But it’s not only for my own benefit, it’s for everyone’s benefit. It’s what we’ve got to do to be the best and it’s something that I enjoy doing at the same time. 

“Working with the mechanics and doing pack up and stuff over the last couple of years, it’s something that I just enjoy doing naturally, not because I have to. It’s a win-win because I enjoy that and it’s team bonding, getting to know them, working with them, and showing respect for them at the same time. 

“I feel better than ever with the team, more at home with the team and I think that’s only a good thing.” 

Ever since he burst onto the F1 scene, Norris has been tipped - along with George Russell - as being Hamilton’s successor as Britain's next world champion.

It is after all hard to look beyond some interesting parallels that have formed between Norris and Hamilton. Both enjoyed stellar success in junior racing and won the Formula 3 title before starting their respective F1 careers, having been signed by McLaren at a young age. 

As much as Norris would love to go on to enjoy similar success to what the seven-time world champion has achieved, he is quick to play down any comparisons to Hamilton. 

“There are parallels but things are very different,” he says. “He came in and was in a championship-winning car in his first year and sometimes people forget that kind of thing. 

“It’s like, 'you joined McLaren, [so] why aren’t you winning races because Lewis was doing it back when he joined’. It’s definitely not as simple as that. We’re in a very different position. 

“Of course I would like to go on to do things like Lewis has done because he’s one of the best drivers ever in F1, maybe even the best. I would love to go on and do such things but everyone’s careers are different with different situations happening, so I don’t know.”

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Despite capturing the high-profile signing of seven-time grand prix winner Daniel Ricciardo to be his teammate, McLaren values Norris incredibly highly and believes he can develop into a serial winner. 

Having outclassed Ricciardo so far this season, Norris appears well on the path to emerging as one of F1’s next top-level talents, while his future at McLaren looks assured given he penned a “multi-year” extension back in 2019. 

Although he is the first to point out that there are never any guarantees in this at times unforgiving sport, Norris is determined to complete the team’s recovery journey and fulfil his F1 dream in the process.

“I do love where I am at the moment,” he adds. “I love the atmosphere and being part of this journey over the past three or four years with the team. 

“From seeing them struggle a lot those few years back, to playing my small part in bringing some smiles back to the team, bringing some better atmosphere, some more energy, and motivation. 

“And I want to say that I have had an effect on that. Maybe sometimes I am but I’m not a boring guy, I like working with the mechanics and seeing people, and I do some things differently to a lot of drivers. 

“Not saying that other drivers don’t do those kinds of things but some don’t, and I feel that I do quite a bit to not only work on myself but also work with the team because I see the value in that and I enjoy doing it. 

“It’s nice seeing smiles on people’s faces compared to four years ago. It’s nice being part of that journey and I would love to keep it going and ideally, winning races eventually with McLaren is my dream. 

“To be part of that whole journey and getting them back to winning races. I would love that to happen, but I’m not a fortune teller.”

If Norris and McLaren can continue on their current trajectory, he might just turn those dreams into reality. 

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