Formula One is about to embark on its 60th season. This island nation of ours has produced 160 Formula One drivers and ten world champions, but none has gone to the grid as young as 19 years and 93 days, the age Lando Norris will be when the lights go out in Australia next month.
Norris does nothing for the idea of teenagers as petulant pains in the neck, nor the legacy notion of F1 drivers as maverick throwbacks to a bygone age. McLaren will not be getting calls from the owners of Mayfair night spots inviting them to send a car for their employee who might need a little help getting home. That was the fate of ex-McLaren party boy Kimi Raikkonen on those long summer evenings when the vivid appeal of London was just irresistible for a young hot shoe with loadsamoney.
You may recall Raikkonen once fell from the upper deck of a boat and became entangled in the railings while celebrating the summer solstice in his native Finland. Well, James Hunt was his hero. Norris is the anti-Hunt in every respect apart from their shared nationality, public school education and love of racing.
“I don’t do that (partying) now. I don’t like drinking, basically. I’ve not done it for a while, said Norris at yesterday’s launch of the 2019 McLaren car in Woking.
“Sometimes I’ll go out with some of my friends who live in London but I hope nothing comes of it. I enjoy staying at home more than going out to do that, so you probably won’t see me in London getting hammered too much.”
What is that about youth being wasted on the young? I jest. Good for him. Besides sobriety is not at all out of step at a team seeking to claw its way back to the top of the grid.
Norris and his Spanish team-mate, Carlos Sainz, a relative vet of four years experience, are one of eight new pairings on the grid. Sainz advised Norris to take it all in during a first season that passes in a blur. Norris has been under the care of McLaren for the past two years as part of the young driver programme. After winning the Euro F3 title and finishing runner-up to Williams debutant George Russell in Formula 2 last season, Norris has punched his ticket to ride.
He arrives at a team needing a lift. Despite failing to score a podium in the past five seasons and after a desperate year in 2018, Norris is optimistic that a corner has been turned and is obviously chuffed to have the team’s trust at such a young age. “I’m proud to be the youngest (Brit in F1 history), it’s a cool achievement. I don’t think it puts pressure on me but I’m proud of the fact I have that record. I have done well in other categories to get this opportunity.”
Norris displays appreciable maturity and is entirely plausible when he says he is ready for anything the sport throws at him. “I know there are going to be times when I make mistakes. It’s very different knowing that in F1 when you make a small mistake more people are going to see it. There is more pressure in F1 knowing you are under scrutiny. There will be times when people think I’m rubbish. It’s about understanding that.”
Twelve years ago a young fella called Lewis Hamilton sat in the same chair full of the same enthusiasms. It is therefore something of a surprise that there has been nil connectivity between the two save for a handshake in Abu Dhabi last season when Norris was announced. “That is as far as we’ve gone. I’ve always looked up to him as a driver because of how amazing he is. He is one of the best of all time.”
Norris has had to make do with absorbing the habits and processes of another McLaren old boy, retired double world champion Fernando Alonso. “I knew Fernando on a much more personal level and I managed to learn a lot from that.” The aim in his first year is, he said, to end it a better driver. “I have tried over the winter to prepare but some things you can’t learn until you are on the track.” That process starts next week at testing in Barcelona.