There’s no doubting Lando Norris’s credentials to take his place among the 20 Formula 1 drivers on the grid for next month’s Australian Grand Prix.
But the fact that he ‘only’ finished second in his first year of Formula Two, and was beaten by fellow rookie and 2019 F1 debutant George Russell, clearly rankled. It pointed to an obvious area where he needed to raises his game – and a surprising one.
Norris’s one-lap pace had been among his most formidable weapons since his arrival in single-seaters. Through a succession of one-make series he repeatedly sussed what he needed to wring the maximum out his his car over a single flying lap.
He never failed to start from the front row on his way to the MSA F4 crown in 2015. The following year he racked up 10 consecutive pole positions in Formula Renault 2.0 NEC. He would have taken pole on his first visit to Monaco, but he was sent to the back of the grid for a minor technical infringement on his Eurocup car.
Even when Norris faced a tougher standard of competition in F3 he started from the front row almost two-thirds of the time. That kind of consistency makes it easier to bag the wins and high points finishes which championships are built from.
So when Norris planted his Carlin-run Dallara on pole position for the season-opening F2 races of 2018 it looked like business as usual. Even more so when he converted it into victory: He was about to steamroller his way to another championship. No one would have expected we had just watched his last pole and win of the season.
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*Excludes his 22nd on the grid in Monaco; he was quickest in qualifying but sent to the back for a technical infringement
Norris admitted he was mystified by his subsequent downturn in form on Fridays, qualifying day for the F2 brigade. “There’s no obvious reason or obvious explanation,” he reflected last year.
“Everything I’ve done in my career so far qualifying’s been my biggest forte by a mile. From F4, never qualifying outside the top two, having several poles in F3, Formula Renault. Several poles in TRS, it’s always been my strongest point.
“And this year it’s changed quite a bit. My stronger point is the race pace, my overtaking, my racing, rather than quali.”
The slump became even more baffling when his team mate Sergio Sette Camara out-qualified him for four races in a row at mid-season. “The first half of the season, I out-qualified my team mate every time,” Norris reflected. “Then the last few he [out-qualified] me.”
His cause wasn’t helped in the second half of the season by having to switch between his F2 car and McLaren’s MCL33 during practice sessions. However the transition to the unusual high-degradation Pirelli rubber used in F2 may also have played a role.
“I think a bit of it is down to the driving style and how you have to drive in Formula 2,” said Norris. “It doesn’t suit me, let’s say, in as many ways as Formula Three or Formula Renault. You have to drive in a more unique driving style for the car and the tyres.
“So it’s just trying to find the perfect way to, not to get around it, but to change my driving style to suit it.”
Norris’s pace over a single lap is just one weapon in his arsenal. He’s great in mixed conditions and a formidable wheel-to-wheel racer – all the traits of a potential future champion are there. It would be incredibly unfortunate if he lost his edge in qualifying just as he arrives in F1, where starting position is arguably more crucial than in any other championship.
Leaving nothing to chance, McLaren has signed up Sette Camara as a test and development driver. Will that help Norris find those crucial few tenths he was missing last year?
Of course he won’t expect to be a pole position contender in 2019 unless McLaren produce a major off-season shock. But his record against new team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr, who was beaten more often than not by Nico Hulkenberg at Renault last year, will be the measure of whether Norris has solved his qualifying slump in the off-season.
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