Lando Norris is my choice for driver of the first half-season in Formula 1 this year. Why? Because there is a wonderful maturity that is starting to appear in him, and it’s a maturity we didn’t see in the past couple of years when he was teamed with Carlos Sainz Jr at McLaren. Now he is with Daniel Ricciardo there’s been a mental change – because they are not friends. Lando doesn’t want to be a friend and that’s the right attitude to have. You have to be cut-throat at some point.
Lando was so friendly, bubbly and chatty when he first came into F1, and he still is – but he has something now that wasn’t there before. Yes, McLaren has improved, but it’s Lando who has been the real standout. He’s delivering the goods consistently. He’s up against Daniel and yet it’s Lando who is getting the best from the car and in this first half of the season there has been a massive shift for everybody to see.
Lewis Hamilton was full of praise for him after Austria and when you hear that from your fellow drivers, especially from a seven-time world champion, you do take it on board and feel good about yourself. You relax, knowing your performance is there and you stop having to think about it. When he’s battling with the likes of Lewis he shows good racing skills. He seems to be the perfect fit right now for McLaren and its development path.
“What’s happened to Daniel? He’s not too old, hasn’t had a crash”
Of the two, George Russell always seemed to be the elder statesman. But now there’s not much between them. George is where George was, but Lando has made that little surge which is impressive because it doesn’t always happen, as I’ve seen with talented drivers in the past. I’m thinking of Jean Alesi, who came in with a big bang in 1989. Over his career it didn’t quite happen for him: the Jean I knew in 1989 was still the Jean of the mid-1990s; there wasn’t a change in him. With Lando there’s a mental shift I haven’t seen for a while. Damon Hill went through it and so too did Mika Häkkinen when he left Lotus and went to McLaren. Someone like George arrives almost fully formed, but Lando is one of those who grows into F1.
Will McLaren be the right team for him in the future? That’s always a conundrum for a driver. We should give Zak Brown credit for where they’ve got themselves to. Then team principal Andreas Seidl fits perfectly with a nice balance of personality, as a rocksteady leader, while technical director James Key is another important part of the set-up that has evolved at McLaren. He has impressed me hugely, bringing on cars that have got better every year in a time when it’s hard to improve. The team does seem to be in a good place and that is not something that is going to stand still. It will only grow.
I saw something similar at Benetton with Flavio Briatore and Michael Schumacher. Unfortunately for me, Flavio could only really support and focus on one driver. I suffered a bit at that team, as did Jenson Button, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli. But McLaren has always been good at supporting both drivers. OK, they are not at the stage Flavio reached with Benetton/Renault, which allowed Michael and Fernando Alonso to deliver world titles. But it’s a similar example where they are growing together. Can they capitalise on the rule changes next year? Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.
In contrast, Daniel has been a shock. We never expected him to struggle to this degree. I can put myself in his shoes and it’s horrible, especially when it goes on for as long as it has and you still haven’t found the answer. Yet we know how good he is and he knows it too.
I’ve heard Daniel’s problems are braking-related, but that’s down to the aero too. If it’s head-scratching for us, just think what it’s like for him. But what’s happened? He’s not too old, he hasn’t had a bad crash. There have been plenty of drivers for whom it has just evaporated, and I go back once again to Jean: he was the next big thing and yet he only won a single grand prix. It didn’t work out for him, with all his natural talent. The trouble is if it doesn’t get better that’s when rumours begin, and once that starts and the tornado speeds up you’re just a passenger.
Johnny Herbert was a Formula 1 driver from 1989-2000 and a Le Mans winner in 1991. He is a regular contributor to Sky Sports F1
Follow Johnny on Twitter @johnnyherbertf1