GP Racing (UK)
OUT FOR A DRIVE WITH LANDO NORRIS
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”