THE BRITS ON THE WAY UP
ILOTT AND NORRIS AIM TO RULE F3
ehind Lando Norris’s seemingly endless ascent through the junior racing ranks, there’s been a very methodological approach to mapping out his future steps.
“We decided – me and my management team – that it was the best thing to take time and learn everything,” says the 17-year-old. “Obviously Max Verstappen was a one-off; he went straight into F3 and then to F1 in two years, and it probably won’t be done again – it can’t be done again at the moment because of the [Superlicence points] rules brought in as a result.”
And that approach has certainly paid off so far. Save for a full campaign in Ginetta Junior – where he was third in his first year of car racing – and BRDC British F3 in 2016, in which he only contested a half-season, Norris has won everything he’s done. MSA Formula? Check. Formula Renault Eurocup and NEC? Completed it. Toyota Racing Series? You can even chuck the Mclaren Autosport BRDC Award in there – you get the idea…
For all Norris’s remarkable achievements so far, though, there’s an ordinary teenager – one who’s aware of his limitations and very patient, both in profile and in his quest to reach the top.
His next step will no doubt be the highest-profile one of his career – a move into European Formula 3. His deal to race in the series with Carlin was one of the worst kept secrets of the off-season, with Norris admitting there was only one winner when it came to deciding on his 2017 direction.
“At the start of 2016, before we decided to do Formula Renault, there was the possibility of doing F3. But we decided to do another learning year, in Renault, and then move up. It was 99 per cent, always going to be Formula 3; obviously there was a bit of talk about possibly doing GP3 instead, but we found that F3 was probably the best route to go down.
“There’s so much track time,” he continues, at length, about the pros of an F3 campaign. “I’m still not the best driver I can be so the more time I can spend on track the more I can improve.
“You’re not in front of F1, going around with them, but just as many drivers have come out of F3 and gone into a junior team or done something like Esteban Ocon or Verstappen and then gone straight into F1.
“There’s a lot of competitors that we know are going to be doing it and GP3 is obviously a bit tricky. A lot of people have told me the car is not great to drive, and you have very limited track time and at odd hours. For all of those reasons, F3 was the best choice.”
There’s a statement buried in there that should strike fear into his rivals’ hearts. Given his previous record, Norris’s insistence that there’s more to come not only shows a grounded individual focused on achieving the best he can, but one who’s likely to become more of a threat throughout the year.
And it’s a challenge he’ll be as well prepared for as a rookie can be. An extensive spell of testing at the back end of 2016 was a good start, but Norris will head to the Silverstone opener not only with knowledge of the circuit he’ll race on – something he won’t be able to say all too often this year – but, crucially, with a couple of weekends of full-fat F3 experience under his belt already, having competed at the European finale at Hockenheim and in the Macau Grand Prix last year with Carlin.
“Definitely doing those two events was of huge benefit,” he says. “I got to know how the race weekends operate and what the routines are like – just the simple things like that. It’ll give me a slight advantage over the other rookies going into the first weekend.
“Macau was completely different once again; we were in a new car, on different tyres, and the track was completely different to anything that I’d ever driven before. That again showed how hard it was to be fast and just proved you have to be very accurate to be at the top. But they were two great weekends of learning and then obviously we tried to do as much as we could do until the testing ban started.
“That’s gone really well – it’s hard to know what you’re like compared to any of the other teams because you could be running heavy with fuel or ballast or the engine could be turned all the way down. The preparation has been good, but we’ve got a few tracks to go to before the new season starts.”
And so, to the 2017 season. There was no holding back when his deal was finally announced (“My aim is simple and the same as at the start of every season – I want to win the championship title outright”). But while he’s bullish about his hopes, Norris, who tested with Prema before deciding Carlin was the ‘logical choice’ for 2017, is aware that the European F3 campaign will be his toughest yet – but knows he’ll contest it without the favourite tag.
“With Carlin we had the confidence that we’d be able to improve the car. I know everyone in the team having been with them for the past two years, so as well as my two team-mates we feel confident in pushing the car, the team and the engineers to be better so that we’re able to take Prema on and go racing with them.
“If you had two cars that were no different – which in theory is the case in F3 – and one team you knew and one you didn’t, you’d always go with the team you knew. That’s a big part; you always feel comfortable and at home, especially because it’s an English-based team – that means I can go to the workshop quite often. You know what questions you can ask, whereas when you go into a new team sometimes you think ‘I don’t know if I can ask this’. Going with Carlin was the right choice.
“I don’t think I’m going to be champion, but that’s obviously the aim. I won last year, so expectations are for me to win again. I believe I’m good enough to win, but going against the people like Jake Hughes or Callum Ilott who have years of experience already [and] they’ve been to all of the tracks we’re going to, and I’ve never been to some.
“It’s definitely going to be the hardest year of all so far, but I feel confident – especially with Carlin – that we’re able to improve the car enough to be able to battle with Prema, and confident that we’ll be able to beat them.
“As long as we can get a good start early enough that’s where we can be strong.”
European F3 will be another step on the path to what Norris ultimately hopes – and many other expect – will lead to a drive in Formula 1.
There’s still a long way to go, and success this year by no means guarantees his future presence in the pinnacle of motorsport. But 2017 does provide Norris a great opportunity to thrive, without the pressure of being title favourite. ■