OUT FOR A DRIVE WITH LANDO NORRIS

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES ROBERTS

En­sconced as a Mclaren re­serve and now in the mix for a 2019 race seat, Lando Norris is a young man in a hurry. We found out how much of a hurry when he took us for a spin around the Aus­trian moun­tains in a Mclaren 570GT

Parked out­side the gasthof is a baby-blue Mclaren 570GT. There’s just one prob­lem: it’s rain­ing. Hard. That doesn’t stop Lando Norris, Mclaren’s 2018 test and re­serve driver, from tin­ker­ing with the set­tings to put the Mclaren into ‘track’ mode, thereby ban­ish­ing the trac­tion con­trol. He wants to have some fun at the wheel of this svelte su­per­car. As we splash out of a sleepy Aus­trian vil­lage and onto the Au­to­bahn, the revs rise and the Mclaren-built 3.8-litre V8 twin­turbo re­ver­ber­ates on the en­try to a tun­nel cut through a Styr­ian moun­tain: Rr­rrrrrru­u­u­u­ur­rrggggh­h­h­hhh! Within three sec­onds, Lando has reached 80mph, fin­gers and thumbs lightly ca­ress­ing the wheel as the Mclaren slices through murky mo­tor­way spray. Our des­ti­na­tion is the Red Bull Ring – we’ll be there in no time and on sched­ule for a sec­ond break­fast. Norris, as well as be­ing a Mclaren re­serve, is in his rookie For­mula 2 sea­son and locked in a ti­tle tus­sle with fel­low Brit (and Mercedes-backed) Ge­orge Rus­sell. Norris im­pressed on his se­ries de­but in Bahrain, se­cur­ing pole and vic­tory at the sea­son-opener. But by his own ad­mis­sion he has “not done a good enough job” since then. Nonethe­less, his per­for­mances haven’t gone un­no­ticed and, in June, Toro Rosso ap­proached Mclaren to en­quire whether the 18-year old might be free to re­place strug­gling in­cum­bent Bren­don Hart­ley. Mclaren po­litely de­clined. “It felt good know­ing there was an F1 team that wanted me to drive for them, es­pe­cially when it’s my aim to race in For­mula 1,” says Norris, dart­ing be­tween slow-mov­ing lor­ries. “Ob­vi­ously, I’m do­ing some­thing right, but I wanted to stay with Mclaren be­cause I feel as though they have helped me a lot al­ready and, as for next year, well… that de­pends on what Fer­nando Alonso does.”

The first Norris knew of the in­ter­est from Toro Rosso was a se­ries of What­sapp mes­sages from his friends con­grat­u­lat­ing him on the deal – al­though ini­tially he had no idea what they were talk­ing about, hav­ing wiped Twit­ter, Face­book, In­sta­gram and Snapchat from his phone, af­ter tak­ing a dig­i­tal detox.

“It’s very easy to spend more time on so­cial me­dia than you need to,” he says, “wak­ing up in the morn­ing and check­ing Twit­ter. That time can be bet­ter spent. But, as a re­sult, I’d com­pletely missed the story that Toro Rosso were in­ter­ested in me.”

Norris slows the two-seater Mclaren as he ap­proaches a toll booth. Af­ter ex­chang­ing nine eu­ros for the priv­i­lege of con­tin­u­ing his trip, he asks for a re­ceipt and nods – “danke.” Quickly adding that he’s not flu­ent in Ger­man…

“No not really, but I un­der­stand a few words as I can speak Dutch,” says Norris. “My mum is from Bel­gium – Flan­ders – so I can speak a bit of Flem­ish. My mum al­ways talks to me in Flem­ish, but I don’t un­der­stand too much ei­ther.”

As we come off the mo­tor­way and into the pic­turesque Styr­ian coun­try­side, a field of brown cows look be­mused as the bark of the 570bhp en­gine dis­turbs their peace­ful morn­ing. On en­ter­ing another small vil­lage, with the loom­ing threat of speed­bumps, a lever on the back of the steer­ing wheel is ac­ti­vated to gen­tly lift the low nose of the car off the road to avoid any un­nec­es­sary ground­ing.

Norris first tested for the Mclaren F1 team last year at both the Hun­garor­ing and Yas Ma­rina, and was ap­pointed their of­fi­cial test and re­serve driver at the end of 2017. A glance at his racing CV in­di­cates his ju­nior cat­e­gory cre­den­tials could lead to a po­ten­tially promis­ing F1 ca­reer.

Aged 14, Norris beat Lewis Hamil­ton’s record to be­come the youngest-ever kart­ing world cham­pion. And his switch to cars was just as im­pres­sive: he won the For­mula Re­nault ti­tle in 2016 and last year be­came the youngest-ever Euro­pean For­mula 3 cham­pion in his first sea­son of F3. If he goes on to win For­mula 2 in his rookie year, he’ll equal the achieve­ments of Nico Ros­berg, Nico Hülken­berg and Hamil­ton, who all be­came cham­pi­ons at F2/GP2 level in their first sea­son. Mclaren know they have a de­cent ped­aller on the books and Brown has re­it­er­ated the team’s plan to hold onto him: “We’re not go­ing to train him up for some­one else,” he said.

“I feel much more at home at Mclaren now,” says Norris, rev­el­ling in the ag­ile cor­ner­ing abil­ity of the 570GT. “When I first joined it felt like a huge place and I didn’t know any­one. It was much big­ger than the ju­nior teams I’d raced for, and it was very daunt­ing. But now I feel as though I know a lot more peo­ple.”

As well as com­pet­ing in F2, Norris is also work­ing in Mclaren’s sim­u­la­tor to help im­prove the re­cal­ci­trant MCL33. It’s giving him an in­valu­able in­sight into the work­ings of an F1 team: “I’ll drive in the sim­u­la­tor be­tween FP1 and FP2 and for a few hours af­ter, too,” he says. “That takes place on what­ever time zone the race is. For Canada, I started at 2pm and fin­ished at around 3am. While for Suzuka at the end of last year, I had to check in for work at 1am. It was a very easy com­mute in my Re­nault Clio be­tween my home in Guild­ford to Wok­ing at that time of night.”

The sim­u­la­tor is cal­i­brated to an iden­ti­cal setup to the real-world car and the aim is to trial set­tings in the sim to of­fer so­lu­tions to the race team. “For ev­ery ses­sion and de­brief, we are linked up in ra­dio con­tact to the driv­ers and en­gi­neers to lis­ten to the feed­back and of­fer so­lu­tions to any prob­lems to im­prove the pace of the car,” Norris ex­plains. “It’s cool to play a part in help­ing the team over the race week­end.”

That work gives him an in­sight that puts him in a bet­ter po­si­tion for a nat­u­ral grad­u­a­tion to the top flight over some of his For­mula 2 ri­vals. He can also pick up a few tips from Alonso, too. “I get on well with Fer­nando and I saw first hand how he works when we were team-mates to­gether in Jan­uary at the Daytona 24 Hours. Be­ing in de­briefs and lis­ten­ing to how he pushes the team for­ward and tries to im­prove every­thing is really in­sight­ful. I wouldn’t say he ‘de­mands’ and has to have this or that, but there are things he says to make the team push more and fo­cus on dif­fer­ent ar­eas. It’s in­ter­est­ing to see what he comes up with.”

As we ap­proach the en­trance to the Red Bull Ring, Norris knows his im­me­di­ate fu­ture hangs on what Alonso does next, but you sense he’s get­ting very com­fort­able at Mclaren. He spots a Mclaren ar­tic­u­lated lorry com­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion and dis­plays his boy­ish en­thu­si­asm by at­tempt­ing to flash his lights in a sign of sol­i­dar­ity, but he squirts washer fluid onto his wind­screen in­stead. “You can tell, I don’t drive these very of­ten,” he ad­mits sheep­ishly.

We sense that won’t be the case for long…

BE­ING IN DE­BRIEFS AND LIS­TEN­ING TO HOW FER­NANDO PUSHES THE TEAM FOR­WARD AND TRIES TO IM­PROVE EVERY­THING IS REALLY IN­SIGHT­FUL”

Don’t be fooled by the pleas­ant green­ery of the sur­round­ing vil­lages: Norris is no Sun­day driver

Wait­ing for his next move – one in which he’s hop­ing to trade the Mclaren 570GT for a race seat

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