Lando Norris, F2, 2018

Why Norris has the talent to justify the hype

2018 F1 season

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There’s no point denying the similarities are there, so let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way.

Next year Lando Norris will be the first British driver to make his debut for McLaren since Lewis Hamilton 12 years ago. And the two have more in common than just being British rookies joining Britain’s most famous F1 team.

Norris is arguably the most promising British talent since Hamilton, though he has emerged from a particularly strong crop of local rivals. In his one-lap speed, his superb touch in wet conditions and his flair for overtaking, Norris has demonstrated himself has fitting successor to Hamilton at McLaren.

But when it comes to their backgrounds and the circumstances of their debuts, the similarities go no further. Norris, wisely, has played down the chance of competing for wins in his first season as Hamilton did. The 2019 F1 season is unlikely to see McLaren restored to being the championship-contending force they were in 2007.

And they are cut from very different cloth. Hamilton’s rags-to-riches route from Stevenage to Monaco have been told many times: How Anthony Hamilton worked three jobs to keep his son in parts for his agricultural “four-poster bed” of a go-kart; the opportunistic introduction to McLaren chief Ron Dennis; the scintillating rise through single-seater racing that followed.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL33
McLaren were impressed by his practice runs
Norris’s background is completely different though, as he told me last week, he is largely unaware of the contrast. “I’m really bad at the history of Formula 1,” he admitted. “It’s easy for somebody from the outside to say what I’ve done different compared to him because I don’t know.”

While Hamilton was picked up by McLaren while he was still in karting, Norris only joined their junior programme two years ago. And while Hamilton’s family needed a benefactor like McLaren to keep him racing, that hasn’t been a concern for Norris. His father’s wealth, estimated at north of £200 million, has allowed his son and management team ADD, who came on board when he was still in cadet karts, to select the ideal championships (often more than one per season) as he ascended to F1.

So if Hamilton’s family circumstances were more like that of Esteban Ocon, who parents literally sold their house to keep him karting, Norris’s comparable reference point on the current grid would be Lance Stroll and his billionaire father Lawrence.

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The current debate over Stroll being fitted for Ocon’s sear at Force India is a reminder that he has never been able to shake accusations his career trajectory is entirely down to his father’s backing, rather than merely facilitated by it. Is the same true of Norris, his success as European F3 champion? Is he just another Stroll who gets an easier ride from the anglophone F1 media due to his nationality?

It was clear from the reactions to the news of his promotion to McLaren last week that some view Norris as being all hype and no substance. This perception, which seems to be held by those who have only seen him racing in F2, is profoundly wrong.

Lando Norris, Josef Kaufmann Racing, Formula Renault Eurocup, Estoril, 2016
Norris won three titles in 2016, including the Eurocup
I first saw Norris racing two years ago while I was commentating on the Formula Renault Eurocup. Those who’d seen him in karting had already advised me that neither money nor talent were in short supply. The latter point was immediately rammed home.

In a championship where second-year drivers normally vie for overall honours, the diminutive 15-year-old rookie stood out head and shoulders above his rivals. He left the opening triple-header at Motorland Aragon with two wins, one second place and a lead in the championship which he never relinquished.

It was one of three titles he won that year. Norris already had the Toyota Racing New Zealand Series title in his pocket and he doubled up in Formula Renault, winning the NEC series as well as the Eurocup.

He also did 11 out of 23 races in the then-MSA Formula Four (now British F3) series, scoring 247 points. This was good enough for eighth in the championship overall. Only one driver out-scored Norris during his spell in the championship, eventual champion Matheus Leist, who picked up 257.

In short, while Norris has undoubtedly had tremendous opportunities available to him, he has taken full advantage of them. The brief overlap between their spells in F3 provides an enlightening comparison.

Start, European F3, Nurburgring, 2017
Norris succeeded Stroll as European F3 champion
In F3, Stroll had the benefit of a Prema team largely built around him and took two years to deliver the title. His 2016 success came against a significantly weakened and depleted field as few rival teams wanted to waste money going up against the Stroll/Prema juggernaut.

Among them was Carlin, who dropped out at mid-season, then returned for the final round so Norris could cut his teeth in the category. The wildcard entrant, in his first F3 weekend, out-qualified new champion Stroll for the final race of the year.

In 2017 Norris added the European F3 championship to the growing roster of titles he’s won first time out. But his F2 bid has not been up to his high standard. Though he won first time out in Bahrain, he hasn’t repeated the feat in the five months since then.

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This has coincided with increased media attention thanks to racing on the F1 undercard and putting in convincing test performances for McLaren. With some in the British media nervously wondering where the next Hamilton is going to come from, the Norris hype machine has gone into overdrive just as his results on track have fallen slightly short.

Why has this happened? The spate of technical problems with the new generation F2 cars at the beginning of the year robbed Norris of some points, though the same is arguably true for some of his championship rivals to an even greater extent.

Lando Norris, Carlin, Formula Two, Silverstone, 2018
F2 hasn’t gone entirely to plan for Norris
The greatest element appears to be that old bugbear for any driver moving into a FOM championship – the peculiarities of Pirelli’s high-degradation tyres, which require careful nurturing within a precise operating window to perform. With very limited practice time at each race weekend, drivers who are already familiar with the rubber, such as GP3 champion George Russell, are at an advantage.

A further complication for Norris in the last two races has been dovetailing his F2 duties with practice outings for McLaren. Driving the F1 car first thing on Friday before F2 practice has proved a distraction, a problem others in his have also discovered: Charles Leclerc was in the same situation in F2 last year, and George Russell has put further practice outings for Force India on hold for the same reason.

That won’t be a concern for Norris any more. While he will continue to make practice appearances for McLaren over the remaining races, he’ll skip those where he’s on F2 duty. McLaren has also ruled out the possibility of him making his grand prix debut before next year.

It promises to be a thrilling showdown between him and leader Russell, who is 22 points ahead with four races remaining. And Norris has made it clear he doesn’t want Russell spoiling his streak: “I don’t want it saying on my CV ‘win, win, win, win, win, loss, Formula 1…

But whether he wins the title or not, Norris has a junior CV few drivers wouldn’t envy. The hype is real, but so is the talent. The question now is can McLaren give him a car to do something with it. Stoffel Vandoorne was the most dominant GP2 (now F2) champion when he won the title three years ago, but Norris will be in his place next year.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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44 comments on “Why Norris has the talent to justify the hype”

  1. It was clear from the reactions to the news of his promotion to McLaren last week that some view Norris as being all hype and no substance. This perception, which seems to be held by those who have only seen him racing in F2, is profoundly wrong.

    Totally agree with this assessment. I’ve kept an eye on Lando since this site posted a link to his FR2.0 battle with Max Defourny in Austria few years back, and he’s been stellar in everything he’s entered, even outpacing Alonso in the Daytona24.
    Finishing second in F2 this year wouldn’t eclipse his barnstorming career to date. Though I wouldn’t bet against him closing the gap to Russell in the remaining 4 rounds.
    Furthermore, he seems like a thoroughly likeable fellow, and I admire his loyalty to Carlin, in sticking with them in their F2 re-entry, rather than taking a safer DAMS seat.
    I had secretly hoped the F1 seat wouldn’t materialise this year, so we could maybe see him jump to Carlin or McLarens Indycars for a year before his F1 call-up.
    Hopefully he will go to Macau again for one last Carlin hurrah. Third times a charm.

    1. I forgot about that stint at the Daytona 24 hours in the wet at night… Something like 3-4 seconds a lap quicker than experienced supercar endurance racers, that was truly an incredible feat. Such a shame the car had an issue meaning it dropped further back.

    2. Furthermore, he seems like a thoroughly likeable fellow, a

      His arrogant remarks about stof seems to contradict this.

      1. What did he say about Stoff that was arrogant? Genuine question. All I remember is him saying Stoff is better than most drivers on the grid, which doesn’t sound arrogant to me.

  2. He may not be having his best season so far, but this guy’s talent is unquestionable. I personally expect him to have the edge on Sainz by the latter stages of 2019, and almost certainly for 2020. Provided McLaren start to improve drastically over the next few seasons, we may not be too far away from a Verstappen vs. Norris vs. Ocon vs. Leclerc battle.

  3. I was impressed by his driving at this year’s Daytona 24 hour race, at one point he was faster than the leaders, even although it was night and damp conditions. A natural racer.

  4. No doubt the guy’s talented and a future F1 driver – possible winner, but I’m not really buying the hype personally. I mean George Russell seems to be at least as good to me and there’s been too many ‘hyped’ drivers that appear and then disappear just as fast. Just ask Stoffel. Also he’s in McLaren so rather than welcome him to F1 I think the guy deserves an apology.

    1. Just ask Stoffel. Also he’s in McLaren so rather than welcome him to F1 I think the guy deserves an apology.

      So Stoffel’s been in GP2 for 2 years, is he joining an F1 team for 2019?

    2. Well George Russell was decent before reaching the F1 paddock – (1st in British F4, 6th in Euro F3, 3rd in Euro F3) – but did the GP3 title in his first year and is looking to mop up F2 at the first attempt. Lando seems to have steam rollered everything he’s entered and has come across to F2 this year and is in a right old ding dong with Russell.

      For a series that over the past decade has seen most drivers take a couple of seasons to get up to speed having these two in their debut year (albeit helped by a new car) showing the rest of the field the way shows they are exceptional talents.

      But Vandoorne is a mystery he had a stellar Junior career he surely cannot be that slow- although I have seen some comments about him liking a car that has a stable rear (a la Vettel) and the McLaren this year is anything but. One feels Norris has been picked because he seems to be able to jump from car to car with ease – the old could drive the wheels off a milk float type.

      I’d also like to see Albon get a go in a Toro Rosso (he was a Red Bull driver a while ago), those top 3 in F2 deserve a go in F1. You never really know until they get a season or two under their belts!

      1. It is also true that this year f2 field is immensely competitive

  5. Stoffel also had the talent to justify the hype and look how that turned out…..

    1. + 1 for the pessimist ;)

      Well… I’m cautious as well for the exact same reason. Vandoorne was as hyped as Hamilton or Verstappen before he debuted lat year. I have a feeling that Norris will be somewhere in between Vandoorne and Leclerc performance-wise in his debut season.

    2. +1.
      I recently read a nice article about Antonio Liuzzi who was at one point the next great thing who quickly washed out of F1 really through no fault of his own. Every few years there is a new next ….. and if they aren’t lucky enough to get into a good team they’re quickly replaced with the next …..
      I wish him luck, but unfortunately his talent is just one of many variables that will decide how successful he is or isn’t in F1.

      1. The good part is that we got most of the exciting young talents to F1 these past years.
        We all know the backstory for the 4 world champions, but their CV pre F1 is not much better than that of the rest of the grid.

        Grosjean, Hülkenberg, Bottas, Ricciardo, Magnussen, Vandoorne, Verstappen, Ocon and Leclerc were great in lesser categories. Gasly eventually won f2. Perez and Sainz had very decent curiculums too… Hartley has an interesting backstory and a superb palmarès. I have enjoyed watching stroll in f3 and Sirotkin in gp2. I’m still not over missing out on Wickens, Frijjn, da Costa, Bird and Lynn… But that’s still a good strike rate given the available seats. Maybe except Ericsson, all F1 drivers on the grid had great success in junior categories. And Ericsson was by no means hopeless.

        So some things do get better in F1. I’d actually venture that the way forward now is to make lower categories more accessible to a larger part of the population, in order to make it possible that the top 0,001% is taken from a larger initial pool. But one step at a time… (I believe recently Ocon, Gasly and Vandoorne’s families were by no means rich).

        Here’s to hope

  6. Interesting article, thanks.

    I am always concerned when the wealthy decide to buy their place in a sport rather than actually have to earn it so obviously I’m concerned this time same as any.
    Having read this article though (and a few others that are floating about) I am hoping to have my concerns well and truly dismissed.

    The problem of course is “that” car.
    McLaren need to give him the tools to prove himself otherwise all the talent in the world won’t save him from being considered “over privileged & over hyped” by his haters. :(

  7. Some of the negative response was really down to his comments about Vandoorne last week. Personally I think the new Hamilton has arrived already, aka Max Verstappen, only with the ‘inconvenience’ of being Dutch not British. No issue for me, but I guess the UK media needs a UK driver. Not that they’ve always treated Hamilton with that much adulation (given his on track exploits) but that’s another issue. Maybe Norris will be as good. But if he’s being beaten by Russell in F2, who has had his own share of reliability issues too and still leads, some scepticism that Norris is really the best new (British) talent is understandable. Not to mention the other young drivers now in Formula 1, or maybe leaving, or maybe arriving. Leaving aside the awkward remarks, I’d worry that Norris could be burnt out and discarded by McLaren the same way as Vandoorne. Unless they come up with a decent car, it’s difficult for anyone to shine. Yet alone stay around apparently.

    1. Unless they come up with a decent car, it’s difficult for anyone to shine.

      I don’t quite agree, you can get the most of a mediocre car and shine well enough. Of course you can’t expect to win a championship with McLaren today but you still can prove you are the best driver on the grid. Which is quite a different thing.

  8. “Hamilton’s rags-to-riches route from Stevenage to Monaco have been told many times: How Anthony Hamilton worked three jobs to keep his son in parts for his agricultural “four-poster bed” of a go-kart”

    Like Ron Dennis would say ” seems like retrospective script writing “. In my country some children walk 10 miles to school over hills and rocky terrain .
    More like Hamilton whining he dad it tough compared to children that really suffered .

    1. The point about his dad working three jobs is recognition of what his parents did for him, not ‘whining’ about how he suffered. Or are you going to whine about him acknowledging his parents too?

      And don’t you think citing poverty in your country to make some trivial point about Hamilton is kind of distasteful? Doesn’t sound like you really have that much empathy.

      1. I think Otto is simply pointing out wealth is relative, and racing is never fair since most of the worlds 7 billion people cant afford to compete. Esport can help a little, but its never racing when theres no risk of getting killed nor paying a repair bill as big as a luxury car.

    2. Well he’s not in your country

  9. I’ll remain on the fence thanks. Many many drivers have had high reputations in the lower formulae then not cut it in F1. Norris only needs to look at the man he’s replacing to see that. Other drivers recently with big hype include Hulkenberg (very good but not a world-beater), Nyck de Vries (won’t make it to F1), Robin Frijns (ditto), Esteban Gutierrez (flopped in F1) and I could go on. You mention the 2016 FR2.0 season, which Norris won fairly comfortably – however it isn’t mentioned that that was an extremely weak field.

    Also mentioned is Norris’ one-lap pace – well, he’s been out-qualified handily – 6 tenths at Monza, half a second in Hungary – for the last 4 consecutive F2 rounds by a teammate who doesn’t have a particularly special record, and if Sette Camara had better luck, they’d probably be neck and neck in the championship as well. Things seem to have gone Norris’ way this year – I seem to remember one race (Monaco?) where he was all over the place but things fell the right way for him and he still scored decent points.

    Anyway, I wish him well but I think this has come a year too early, another year of F2 would have been better. I do think he’ll struggle against Sainz. Will he get the same vitriol as Stroll if he doesn’t perform? Probably not for some reason.

    1. @tflb Difference being that Norris has earnt the right to be given a chance in F1, unlike Stroll, who, without backing, would be unheard of.

    2. To be fair Camara never had a good car and in his rookie year he showed very good pace at the end of season. Seeing how much he improved as a driver without major supports, I think he can improve more and more. I don’t have the same feeling towards Norris.

  10. Too bad he’s driving for a team that primarily uses drivers as scapegoats for bad engineering.

    1. McLafen have poor management – not bad engineers.

  11. I’m hoping he will do well, and I don’t think he will suffer the same fate as Stoffel, simply by virtue of his team mate not being Alonso. I don’t recall Alonso’s early years that well, but from 2007 the only team mate to Alonso that did not look bad was Hamilton, and Lewis had the best possible preparation available that a team could still offer at that time.

  12. Oh, i sincerely hope there is talent. But it the step to F2 already was heavy for him, what about the step to a backmarker team in F1?
    And do not forget he replaces a very highly rated driver who is dumped.

  13. Todd (@braketurnaccelerate)
    10th September 2018, 17:33

    I’m not buying it. I don’t think last year’s F3 field was all that impressive. It had some good drivers, but none that really stood out. His 2018 F2 campaign isn’t really showing anything spectacular. He’s won 1 race, and got second 3 times, most of the field has won a race and has similar results. He’s just been consistently towards the top, which is why he’s 2nd, but he seems to be a bit off.

    I think he’s going to be another tier 2-3, Bottas/Hulk/Perez/Sainz type of driver. Very good on their days, but not on that top tier of Ham, Vet, Young Rai, Ver, Ric, Alo, etc.

    We also have to factor in McLaren. Vandoorne was rated as the next best McLaren driver and that panned out really poorly. Can McLaren produce a car that’s decent? Can McLaren produce two cars that are decent? Who does McLaren favor their resources towards, if they can’t produce two equal spec cars, Sainz or Norris? So far McLaren is 0/4 on young drivers since Hamilton (Kovalainen, Perez, Mag, Vandoorne), will it be 0/5?

  14. Feels a bit too soon to justify anything no? Let’s wait until the kid races at least

  15. I’ll be convinced when he destroys his distinctly middle-of-the-road team-mate, Sainz.

    Until then, I’ll retain my view that he doesn’t look particularly special. Thanks in part to an insightful CoTD a month or so ago, we all know the advantage money can buy drivers in the lower formulae… and now he’s in F2 (with no private testing), where his only advantage that I’m aware of is using the McLaren simulator, he looks as I expected.

    Talented, probably on the path to F1, not another Lance Stroll but equally, nowhere near the level his hype machine has built him to be.

  16. The advantage is that he’s British. Should protect him from the beating Max is getting for every single little off he has. Hamilton ofcourse never ever made mistakes. Neither will Lando, so that’s already in the pocket!

    1. Hahahaa of couse, Hamilton never get flak from the media.

  17. Or maybe in this year F2 it’s the first time he’s facing a real competition? For me it’s all excuses, if the problem was the tyres why he did so well in the first race?

  18. I have been following him since Formula 3 and I agree that he is one of the quickest when he is alone on the track.
    But I also think he makes too many mistakes when he is racing in the pack. He did so a couple of times in F3 and he is doing it again in F2. He just doesn’t cut through the field as Russell does (who is imho a more complete driver and better overtaker) or Leclerc did last year.

    So no, I don’t think he justifies the hype just yet. But let him prove me wrong.

  19. You can find all the excuses you want, it’s a fact that since his last race win in F2, 9(!) other drivers have stood on the highest place on the podium. He has potential, but I can easily see him flop next year in F1.

  20. Not sure what some people here expect him to do. Act like a 10 year vet? The point of f3 and f2 is to learn and grow. And make mistakes. That is how you improve. But if you look closely at f2 you can see the talented ones. It shows up under certain conditions. And sometimes it even takes a bit more time. Gasly was not great in GP2, but he has learned and grown and is a better driver now. Norris is a great talent. Only time will tell if he can be a great champion.

    Some people mention Russel. Well, you can have two great talents at once you know! It doesn’t have to be one or the other. No need to speak ill of one, just because you like the other more.

  21. Fantastic article, @keithcollantine; just what I was looking for.

  22. Nice article. I first saw Norris race in the Toyota New Zealand series & he stood out above the rest of the field many of whom had experience of the tracks & cars. Not often does an unknown driver in a field of unknown (to me) drivers stand out like that. The previous one was Mister Max. Norris has the talent I believe & I’m looking forward to seeing him in F1 (shame it looks like being in a diff car though!).

  23. McLaren has already destroyed drivers like Magnussen, Perez, Vandorne, Kovalainen by presenting them as the sure new Sennas. All of them dumped badly after a huge initial hype. I hope for the new kid he’s stronger than that because McLaren seems to be a meat mincing machine

  24. Oh boy, the heat is up for Vandoorne, Ericson and Ocon (and Sirotkin possibly).

  25. My favourite Lando memory is him stood on the podium in Ginetta Juniors with guys twice his size and 3 to 5 years his senior.

    I hope this photo works:

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