Why Lando Norris is this year's F1 sensation

F1

Lando Norris scored his second podium as George Russell generated the wrong kind of headlines at Imola

Lando Norris, 2021 Imola GP

Norris celebrates with his team in parc fermé

BRYN LENNON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Two races down and Daniel Ricciardo has a two-nil lead in qualifying over McLaren team-mate Lando Norris in 2021. Talk about a misleading statistic. The real story of what might be the tightest and most intriguing intra-team battle of the Formula 1 season is that it’s 21-year-old Norris, not the seven-time grand prix winner, who has the upper hand right now. Norris has come out of the gate like a bullet in 2021 – just as he knew he had to.

Inevitably, it’s his old Formula 2 rival George Russell who’s taken the lion’s share of the spotlight since the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday, but for all of the worst reasons following his collision with Valtteri Bottas – and all the fall-out that followed – at Imola.

In contrast, Norris can take quiet satisfaction from a wonderful performance at the old Italian circuit where he secured his second F1 career podium finish, on the back of a fighting fourth place in Bahrain, that leaves him third in the world championship, four places and 13 points up on the highly-rated Ricciardo. Sweet.

“Were those fireworks for me?” quipped Lando after taking the flag in Bahrain as the night sky lit up in celebration of Lewis Hamilton’s victory. He knew he’d delivered after Ricciardo had out-qualified him by a scant 0.05sec in the desert.

The Aussie’s race was compromised by damage after Pierre Gasly clipped his MCL35M on the first lap, so Sunday comparisons were void at Sakhir. But that wasn’t the case at Imola, where Norris comprehensively outpaced Ricciardo over the spread of the weekend. He was kicking himself for exceeding track limits in qualifying that dropped him from a potential third on the grid to seventh – one place behind Daniel again – but he more than made up for it in the race with a performance he described as “a nice recovery after yesterday”.

Related article

The pointed message over the radio on lap 17 when running in the wake of his team-mate was a key moment – perhaps of the season. “I have a lot of pace in me I can’t use at the moment,” said Lando. “I need clear air.”

McLaren wasted little time in acting on that ‘advice’, requesting Ricciardo to let his team-mate through. To his credit, Daniel did so without argument and “swallowed his pride” for the greater good. He’s a class act.

What really indicated the level Norris is now performing at was his performance following the red flag to clear up the Russell/Bottas debris. From the rolling start he picked off Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari to run second and drove beautifully in his defence against a charging Hamilton. He was never going to hold off the DRS-assisted Mercedes-AMG, but the way he placed his car in the centre of the road on the approach to Tamburello – the only real overtaking spot at Imola – showcased the canny racecraft honed through all those years in karting and the junior formulae.

“I didn’t think I had any fans!” he said when Martin Brundle told him afterwards he’d won driver of the day from the public vote – but for all of Lando’s immensely likeable (perhaps faux-humble) demeanour, there’s no mistaking this is an increasingly confident young racing driver relishing what appears to be a very decent McLaren. He’ll still be feeding off that buzz when they get to Portimao at the turn of the month.

Lando Norris, 2021 Imola GP

Norris scored the second podium of his career while F2 rival Russell had a weekend to forget

Florent Gooden / DPPI

“On the whole I’m very pleased … with myself but the team as well,” said Norris in the immediate afterglow. “I think apart from Q3 it was a pretty perfect weekend. We improved the car a lot over the first couple of days, and we didn’t start on the best foot – but we improved a lot. I felt like I did a very good job in qualifying. It was the first time I only had to do one run in both Q1 and Q2, so I did good enough laps to save the tyres, give myself a good opportunity into Q3 and be pretty close to pole position – effectively almost P3. I was disappointed yesterday so to come back to third today after a pretty eventful race for myself and, I’m sure, the others as well, was rewarding for myself, but more importantly, the team.”

McLaren’s choice of soft Pirellis rather than mediums for the second part of the race was a big call – but it didn’t cost him as it might have done. “I wasn’t so confident to get the tyres working,” he said. “It’s not an easy track to overtake on – Lewis might say otherwise! – but I think it was the right decision.”

Related article

Naturally, he took some pride in getting the better of Leclerc and Ferrari at the restart and was even alive to the brief possibility of a victory when Max Verstappen almost dropped his Red Bull at Rivazza just ahead of the rolling restart.

“I thought Charles was going to drive ahead of Max on the restart, as he was off-track, so didn’t take advantage of that,” said Lando. “But he had a lot of wheelspin on the restart when Max went, and that’s the fault of the medium tyres and their decision [to use them]. We made our decision to go on the softs, I got a good launch, good restart and got ahead of him.

“I pretty much started saving the tyres from lap one after the restart, knowing that the last couple of laps were going to be pretty tough. And they were. Especially with Lewis at the end. I think a lot of focus is the last couple of corners, getting the deployment right, using the battery in the right way. So, I was trying to save up as much as possible. In the end, I didn’t have enough rear tyre out of the last two corners and the chicane to hold him behind, but I tried. It was a nice little battle.

“It’s nice to be racing unusual cars, I guess for us, a Red Bull, a Mercedes and Ferraris and things like that. It’s nice to be going up against them. Hopefully we can have some more of that in the future.”

No reason to think otherwise. Norris looks right at home at the sharp end of an F1 race. Of course, Ricciardo is too good and too experienced not to come back at him in the next few rounds, after a challenging race track that was tough on all the drivers who are still getting used to cars and teams that are new to them this year. But on this evidence and from what we’ve seen in his first two F1 seasons, Norris is up to that challenge.

As old rival Russell takes a humility pill and keeps his head down to put his Imola woes behind him, Norris has his chin up and is looking at the sky. Let’s see how high he can fly.