Making the Grand Prix top 10 more than once and recently bagging his first podium finish, Bristol-born boy wonder Lando Norris is Formula One’s youngest ever British driver and one worth paying attention to. Already an influential figure broadening the sport’s fanbase, he talks Twitch fame and recognising true team efforts at McLaren. Words by Amanda Nicholls.
As forays into the fast-paced world of Formula One go, Lando Norris’s has been encouraging to say the least. He’s trackside, in 33-degree Barcelonian heat, when we speak – having just finished respectably in eighth position after the qualifying laps of the 2020 Spanish Grand Prix, sandwiched between teammate Carlos Sainz and Ferrari’s Charles Le Clerc. Lando Norris seems just as close with these nippy young drivers – alongside Max Verstappen, George Russell and Alex Albon – with off-the-racetrack, gentle ribbing and competitive banter part of their modus operandi, and the playful partnership with Sainz branded one of the biggest bromances on the circuit. For many fans the world over, it’s been a joy to watch the rise of the rookies – this shot of new energy continuing its course through virtual grand prix challenges set up during lockdown – and for Bristol, local boy Lando in particular.
Despite high temperatures, fiddlesome face mask and not finishing exactly where he might have wanted to, the 20-year-old talent is positive, good humoured, characteristically collected – he knows he still has plenty to smile about. “Last year was very good but this season has started much better, better than we were anticipating and probably ever expecting, especially with the podium in race one then some P5s [fifth position grid starts],” says Lando, who on the very last lap of the Austrian Grand Prix in July, managed to seal his first F1 fastest lap and become the third youngest F1 podium finisher ever, after fearing he’d fudged the whole thing. He found himself stood on the rostrum beside Valtteri Bottas and Charles Le Clerc, showered in champagne after besting a penalised Lewis Hamilton, no less.
“I guess the podium is the one that stands out,” grins Lando. He strikes me as a kid with the sort of psychological make-up you need to be able to let anxieties wash over you like water off a duck’s back – and to win. Even the pressure of being named rookie of the year by fans in 2019 hasn’t fazed him. “Of course I knew I needed to take a step up, and when you go into season two, people do expect just that little bit more. So far I’ve achieved that so I’m happy with how I’ve been doing but there are still things I need to improve on. But I never felt because of winning that last year that there was pressure.”
Still – cucumberesque in his coolness or not – it must have thrown him to have his high-octane level-up into top-flight professional racing come screeching to a halt when the pandemic hit. It didn’t show, with Lando springing into action to help Formula One and a handful of other F1 drivers launch a virtual grand prix series from home, to replace the postponed real-life races. Providing light relief for viewers – at one point Lando’s car drove itself around the track after he lost internet connection – and bringing participating drivers closer, it helped them prepare for the eventual resuming of the season the only way they could. Hitting pause also allowed for a period of more in-depth analysis and reflection.
“Before race one we did the preseason tests at the normal time of the year – the early part – then we had three, four months of not doing anything, so the main thing in terms of preparation off-season was looking at my strengths and weaknesses, trying to work on them, and making the whole package a bit better, driving the simulator at McLaren and putting more time into reviewing last year. Then before race one, there was a lot of time spent at home playing on the simulator and training.”
A keen gamer who admits to 48-hour sessions – if Lando likes doing something he’ll spend forever trying to perfect it, whether it’s driving, graphic design or cleaning his house from top to bottom at midnight – he has felt compelled to defend sim racing in recent times. Younger drivers’ ability to risk-assess was called into question last year by 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who suggested an overreliance on racing simulators and less awareness of the dangers out on the track might have played a part in Anthoine Hubert’s fatal crash in the Spa Formula 2 race. Unafraid of voicing his thoughts and responding to criticism from more established drivers, Lando also hit back at Hamilton’s comments about F1 being too easy for entry-level drivers due to power steering. And anyone who follows Lando’s social media channels is likely to dispute another of Villeneuve’s recent claims that the sport no longer has enough character and personality – has he not seen ‘memelord’ Lando’s displays of self-deprecating British humour on Instagram after he’s crashed out of races?
Indeed one of Lando’s strengths is his level of connection with his followers, helping bring a new fanbase to Formula One, and he keeps them equally entertained with his off-track antics. He shaved his head live on Twitch, raising thousands for the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Solidarity Respond Fund in the process, and has encouraged other drivers such as Verstappen to be more active in terms of fan engagement and show their less serious side while racing everything from lorries to lawnmowers online. It’s important to be relatable and attract the next generation, he agrees, especially to a sport that has largely been seen as elitist, but it’s not something that’s ever asked of him by McLaren. “I enjoy doing it – it’s not something I have to do. I streamed quite regularly when I was at home – obviously it’s bit harder to do now – and because a lot of the supporters like it, I’ve made the most of it with the charity streams for various organisations which has gone down really well and raised a decent amount of money so I’m very happy.
“It’s not something that every driver goes around trying to do; it depends what you want to achieve. It’s just something I like to do and if something that comes along with that is that it attracts some new fans and young kids who are getting into racing, that’s an extra bonus. It’s very easy to do.”
For someone for whom being personable and providing quality live digital content comes naturally, maybe – the more media-shy among pro drivers might be less readily inclined to agree – and especially when the good times keep rolling with Sainz.
“We’ve had a lot of laughs, at the race track and away doing different activities with McLaren, sponsor events and so on – we both have just enjoyed our time in Formula One. When you have two teammates who enjoy it as much as we do you get this friendship where we respect each other and just want to enjoy our lives, whether we’re at the track or away from it. You see it on social media, you see it on videos and clips, and that’s just us, you know.
“You don’t get it with every teammate, some are more quiet and don’t talk so you don’t get to see that side but I’ve always got on with my teammates and I think Carlos has changed quite a bit over the last two years since joining McLaren and being my teammate. It’s been a great journey for both of us so of course we’ll miss him, with the banter and the fun we’ve had together, but it’s life and we’re moving on with another cool teammate coming in.”
Having got off to a flying start alongside Sainz (who is now due to move to Ferrari to replace Vettel), change is on the horizon, with Daniel Ricciardo poised to join McLaren in 2021. Needless, perhaps, to say, laidback Lando isn’t too nervous about a potentially different team dynamic. “We’ll have to wait and see, but in the last few years [McLaren has] already changed a lot so I don’t think there’s going to be huge change; there’s a much better structure in place than there was a few years ago so now it’s more fine tuning and continuous development rather than changing the atmosphere of everything.” That, at the moment, is very good he says, especially since he and Carlos joined in 2019. “There was a big step up in morale, a lot of it from us being more involved in the team, showing a little bit more respect to everyone and going round to all the different departments that work on the car – because it’s long hours, it’s a lot of work to produce the two Formula One cars that we drive and it’s not easy, you know, so we have to keep supporting everyone who is part of it, everyone back in MTC [McLaren Technology Centre] spending those hours into development and improving the car.
“Doing that has really helped morale, so you get better performance, even better atmosphere, and it’s kind of a circle. Things have got a lot better over the last few years and especially this year.”
Born in Bristol, Lando was schooled at Millfield in Somerset and despite his hectic international schedule, and his recent decision to eschew a move to glamorous millionaires’ playground Monaco in favour of a new pad in Woking to be close to McLaren HQ, he gets back to the South West now and again. “I did go back a few weeks ago in one of the breaks between races. It was the first time since February or March that I had been to Somerset. My family and friends are there, it’s where my dad’s office is, so there are a lot of people there supporting me. I love going back; it’s so quiet and peaceful compared to where I live, where, you know, I have a next-door neighbour! When I go home and live with my parents our next-door neighbour is nowhere close and we have more space and some gardens and fields full of horses so there’s much more greenery around me than the little garden I have now.”
Traditionally, budding young drivers have needed a fair bit of money behind them to be able to go far in professional racing, although the leading likes of Lewis Hamilton have vowed to help Formula One become more diverse and accessible to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Lando’s father Adam Norris made his millions at Bristol firm Hargreaves Lansdown which allowed him to support his son in the sport, after he initially developed a love for motorcycle racing and later switched to karting. There’s not a trace of haughtiness or entitled virtuoso despite the privileged background; rather, likeability, deference and an approachable, down-to-earth nature appear to be the hallmarks of the friendly young face of Formula One’s future – as many have pegged him.
Speaking of what could be further ahead, Lando, like Lewis, is fully behind improving diversity in racing – and is seeing gradual change. “It’s obviously a big talking point at the moment and it’s something that’s continuously evolving and changing especially now within Formula One,” he says. “I’m happy to be part of it, promote it and do what I can and show my respect to everyone that deserves it. It’s something which has grown a lot and it’s really good for everyone in F1, showing that we can use all of our platforms, not just in terms of F1 as a show that you watch on TV, but using social media and followers and promoting it that way. But I’m happy with the way it’s going, it’s something I respect greatly.”
Follow Lando Norris on Twitter/Twitch/Instagram: @LandoNorris