Current FIA F2 championship leader spills the beans in our Big Interview Over the past few years, there’s been a huge buzz around Lando Norris, especially in his native Britain. Having been hugely successful during his time in myriad junior categories, Norris was hot property and hailed by many in British (and also international) media as the “Next Big Thing”, the successor to four-time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton. Thus, he was snapped up by the McLaren F1 Team to become part of their junior programme.
Now, he stands on the brink of the top level having moved up into the FIA Formula 2 Championship with Carlin. Among the swirling premonitions and hype, there remains one question that has gone relatively unanswered thus far: just who is Lando Norris?
Let’s ask him.
Growing up in the small town of Glastonbury in the south west of England, hardly an area known for its motorsport prowess, Norris admits that racing barely factored on his radar as a young child.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t really a massive motorsport fan, and I wasn’t really brought up in it or surrounded by it. My dad wanted to do it when he was younger, but he couldn’t ever really afford it, so he started cycling instead. Still, he still enjoyed racing, and used to watch F1 on the TV mainly…and I started watching it a bit as well.”
“I also started playing racing games like Gran Turismo, so I just got into racing through that. Then, randomly one day after school my dad took my brother and me to Clay Pigeon, which was my local kart track, and we watched the British championships. Me being me, I wanted to have a go! Soon after, I got a Bambino go-kart to drive around at home, and it started there - eventually I got onto the kart track and slowly built my way up to where I am now.”
From there Norris tore through the karting ranks, winning a number of CIK-FIA categories before graduating to his first car race in the Ginetta Junior Championship in 2014, where he finished third overall.
“I was 14,” he recalls. “Originally, I wasn’t meant to be doing the whole championship, I was only meant to be doing the final five or six races, and so it was a bit of a surprise and a bit of a shock to go in and do my first race weekend at Brands Hatch. Because it was on the British Touring Car Championship weekend, it was quite a big event with a lot of media and a lot of viewers, so it was quite a big step up from karting.”
After a year, Norris switched to single-seaters to race in the MSA Formula (now British F4) category, dovetailing it with part-campaigns in Italian and German F4. He won the British championship in his first year, having had to quickly adapt from his Ginetta campaign, which he credits as a key component in improving his racecraft.
“It was quite a big difference, as in the Ginetta you have a roof over your head, you’re on road tyres, not a lot of horsepower, and it rolls a lot because it’s quite soft. It was a really good car for learning, developing myself and my racecraft, because the racing’s pretty close.
“Stepping up to F4, obviously everything becomes tougher. Physically it’s harder because you’ve got much more downforce, so you have to hit the brake pedal with quite a bit more force. You have to get used to the aero too, because obviously the Ginetta doesn’t have a wing of any sort, and suddenly you’ve got the front wing, rear wing, underfloor…it takes a few days, really, a few tests to get on top of it and feel like it’s natural. I think I adapted fairly quickly.”
Being able to adapt has proven to be one of Norris’s key strengths, and this was once again put to the test in 2016 with a full campaign in Formula Renault 2.0, with a partial season of the BRDC British F3 Championship. Although Norris won out in the former championship, he confessed that it wasn’t always easy to jump from one car to the other.
“Sometimes I found it easy, I could just jump in and feel confident. But sometimes it was extremely difficult, and the worst one was going into the final round of (2.0) Eurocup in Estoril. The first session was one of the worst ones I’ve had in my career, and I’d felt like I’d never driven a car before. I had to get used to all the speed again - it felt so alien to me, and that was my worst experience in jumping from one to the other. I’d just come back from testing the BRDC F3 car, so directly jumped into a different car one day after.
“I don’t know why I was struggling so much at Estoril, I’d never been to the track before so maybe that’s some of it, and having been in the BRDC F3 car before I was having to learn both bits, it was a bit of a new feeling and I just wanted to get it natural again.
Norris then moved up to the FIA European F3 Championship, which he again won at the first attempt. It was the second title that he had won with the Carlin team, having done so in MSA Formula, and he believes that the familiarity and relationships that he had already built with the engineers had provided a huge boost to his campaign.
“There’s a small bit of disbelief at the thought that you can go in and beat them in your first year, and it’s the same in F3, and it’s the same coming into F2, going up against the guys who’ve done it for the past couple of seasons. I knew it was going to be tough, but I was surprised how strong we were. We started off really well, that went down slightly, and then it became much better from mid-season towards the end.
“It was definitely very tough, but I felt very happy with Carlin. I knew all the engineers from my last couple of years with them, from my F4 days, and even then I’d go to the truck and get to know them a bit. It was tough, but being with people I knew made it easier."
Through his back-to-back championships, McLaren came knocking and set about adding Norris to its junior team, which also consists of fellow Formula 2 racer Nyck de Vries. With their support, Norris has been able to consult some of the world’s leading engineers and tap into the knowledge and data that the Woking team has to build himself further as a driver.
“Of course, it’s not like they’ve built me up from scratch, I was already doing fairly well when I joined them! But there’s been a lot of things, especially now stepping up into F2, that they’ve been able to help me with. I drive on the simulator to learn the tracks, seeing the amount of information they have on each one you can see where the best place is to save the tyres, especially with these Pirellis it’s extremely important.
“Some things you can work out, but with the engineers you can go into more detail and get more information, which I’m able to take on board and gives me a bit of an advantage over some of the others who aren’t with F1 teams and who don’t get that support.
“McLaren have helped me a lot. I wouldn’t be doing quite as well as I am now without their support, I probably wouldn’t be in F2 now without them.
Surely, having double-Champion Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne on hand also helps, right? Norris explained the role that both senior drivers have had on shaping his approach to learning about the intricacies of F1 in his McLaren reserve driver role.
“Going to a few race weekends last year, and being at the track with Stoffel and Fernando, I was able to learn about how they approach the weekend and give feedback.
“Fernando’s just a very good driver, and it’s more on how he approaches weekends and how he helps his teammates, especially in endurance events Lando and Fernando drove together in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, how willing he is to help and push the team forward. His knowledge about everything is impressive, and a lot of things I’m able to take back with me. Being able to compare my data with his is brilliant, and I get to see what I need to do to match up with a Formula 1 driver.”
And has Stoffel, a GP2 Series winner, been able to share the secrets of being successful in Formula 2, especially with the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres?
“We’ve not really had a proper conversation about it,” Norris concedes. “Most of the time I’ve seen him at the racetrack I don’t really want to disturb him, so I’ve tended not to ask so many questions – especially when he’s driving! When I have seen him, we tend to have more light-hearted chats rather than anything deep about racing.
“The only things he’s really said is that a lot of it’s about consistency, always having strong qualifying. Getting regular podiums is key, and if you get the reverse grid starting in eighth, then at least making sure you move forward and picking up as many points as you can without risking too much.”
Although Norris’ start to life in F2 – a one-off round with Campos Racing in the 2017 Abu Dhabi finale – didn’t meet his expectations, he cited the weekend as a vital learning experience ahead of a full 2018 campaign.
“I was expecting more, to be honest. The team were very good, but I think the problem was just me basically – I didn’t adapt very well. I’d never been to Abu Dhabi before. Our race pace was very strong, it’s a bit unfortunate I couldn’t do much of Race 1 because of an issue with the engine, but it was definitely strong in Race 2. In the first one, it was a bit difficult to judge when you can push, when you can’t.
“I think by the end of it and after testing we knew the biggest areas to work on, I think overall it was a positive thing to go and do - and I benefitted from it a lot.”
It’s hard to argue with that, especially after his electric start to the 2018 season. Planting the car on pole, Norris won the feature race at Sakhir, Bahrain at a canter, taking the point for fastest lap in the process. A strong fourth in the following sprint race underlined Norris’ mantra of building a consistent challenge, rather than risking everything in the early stages. All of this came with a Carlin team which is in their first season of Formula 2. Surely joining a rookie team as a rookie driver is a bit of a risk?
“It was a difficult decision,” Norris ponders carefully. “Initially, Carlin was never on the cards, they weren’t in F2 at that point, but when they came in, we started to talk with them - we were in talks with some other teams too, but that didn’t go to plan.
“It was a bit of a surprise because as I said, there wasn’t the original option to go with Carlin. But knowing the team, I knew if there was an option to go with them I would – one of the engineers I have now is someone I worked with last year, and I’ve known him for several years. The head engineer is the engineer I had when I first started in F4, and he’s been in all the categories I’ve gone up with to F2.”
And how has that helped him to settle in? “I felt very comfortable and that helped a lot in being able to go to Paul Ricard and come to the first race, to be confident and to be able to push straight away for podiums or wins. I like to think that it’s turned out to be the best option.”
Although the 2018 season has only just begun, what does Norris have in the pipeline for the year after? Sensibly, he’s taking things step by step, although Formula 1 is the obvious goal.
“I’m just trying to focus on this season for now, and if anything arises my plans might change, but there’s no plan at the moment. Focusing on this season, I just want us to do as well as we can, hopefully win. There’s plenty of strong drivers, plenty of strong rookies, but there’s no reason why we can’t beat them. There’s no reason why we can’t win.
“If I end up in F1 next year – awesome. If not, hopefully I’ll be able to go to all the races; do plenty of testing. This year I’ve got a couple of tests lined up, so hopefully I’ll learn more then.”
If Norris continues throughout the season as he has in Bahrain, he’ll be a big factor in the battle for this year’s F2 title – which would be a huge boost to his pursuit of reaching F1.
Start as you mean to go on, they say.