Time for Norris and Russell to take their place at F1's top table — MPH


Lando Norris and George Russell will be looking for their breakthrough Formula 1 wins in 2022, but that's just the start of their potential, writes Mark Hughes

Lando Norris and George Russell

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

Today we’ll see the car on which Lando Norris – whose contract McLaren has recently extended to the end of 2025 – will stake his future. Let’s hope it’s a car worthy of carrying his ambitions, one which might allow him to race wheel-to-wheel with the Mercedes of his friend and long-time rival George Russell.

Norris and Russell have provided some of the most exciting performances of the previous two seasons of F1, though cruelly in both cases they were robbed of their breakthrough grand prix victory.

But Sochi ’21 and Sakhir ’20 remain thrilling markers of their respective potential. Norris had the agonising choice as the leader when the rain arrived in Russia last year of whether to pit in the closing laps and surrender his lead or try to hang on. He gambled wrong in hindsight. But up until that moment he had full control of this race and even being caught by the faster car of Lewis Hamilton had not loosened his hold on what looked sure to be the win. Hamilton later said that until events were randomised by the weather, he didn’t think he was going to be able to find a way past the McLaren as Norris was doing a perfect, unflustered job of defending.

Watching Norris in Austria was to see a magician of car control at work.

You may have even heard Hamilton praising Norris in the past over the radio. At both Imola 2020 and Red Bull Ring last year he commented upon how the McLaren driver perfectly balanced when to defend and when to recognise the moment when continuing to do so was only going to compromise his own race. Then how he left Hamilton just enough space that the place was there if he wanted it, but not an inch more. It was clean, classy and together with Sochi showed he was absolutely ready to win grands prix, that he was not at all overawed to be running in such company.

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Watching him put the McLaren on the front row for the Austrian Grand Prix last year with a lap that perfectly balanced aggression and control, during which he was audacious in how he was using the potentially crash-inducing exit kerbs of the penultimate corner to actually help halt the slide which had allowed him his crazy-high entry speed was to see a magician of car control at work.

The way that Russell, as a stand-in for an unwell Hamilton at Sakhir, breezed into the Mercedes team and out-performed Valtteri Bottas with no previous experience of the car and which didn’t even fit him properly was deeply impressive. He potentially had the race won twice, but each time it was taken from him by events outside his control. It was also significant that his drive included a super-aggressive but perfectly-judged pass on Bottas in his recovery drive. A team error in the pits ultimately finished-off his prospects of winning a race which a puncture had already made more difficult but from which he’d looked fully capable of recovering.

It was cruel luck but it was a performance which made it inevitable that he’d be moved into the senior team on a full-time basis as soon as everyone’s contracts lined up. If that meant his Williams season of last year was just treading water in an uncompetitive car waiting for the big break, he didn’t treat it like that. Putting what was the eighth/ninth-fastest of the 10 cars on the grid on the front row of a wet Spa (faster than both Mercs) was an astonishing achievement, a modern day F1 miracle. Qualifying it third at a wet Sochi wasn’t far behind.

If the McLaren can just bridge that small gap to the front and Mercedes delivers the calibre of car that’s expected of them, in Norris and Russell we have two guys who seem certain to deliver those overdue victories. But that’s just the foundation level. They have not only each other to compete against but Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc too. Watching them find their place in such heady company is going to be one of the great fascinations of F1 this year.