As a new season approaches, Formula One’s youngest driver is ready to come of age in his second campaign.
Lando Norris enjoyed a relatively successful debut season in 2019, finishing 11th in the driver’s standings as McLaren came fourth in the constructors’ championship.
But the 20-year-old Briton did not always believe his first foray into motorsport’s premier series would go so well.
“This time last year I was having a panic attack about everything,” he tells City A.M. “I was nervous and anxious. Now I’m much happier and in a much better place.”
Norris followed up a positive opening weekend in Australia with a joint season’s best finish of sixth in Bahrain, and while the first half of the campaign was fairly turbulent, top 10 finishes became a more regular feature in the second half.
“I’m proud of how I did, especially from how I was thinking I would do coming into the season,” he adds.
“I thought I would struggle, and I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult, but having a team-mate such as Carlos [Sainz Jr], I thought there would be more times when I would be thinking ‘I’ve got to find a lot of time, I’m struggling, what do I need to really do to improve?’.”
The Bristolian became Britain’s youngest ever F1 driver at 19 and is candid about the challenges of moving into a high-pressure, elite sport. But, ahead of next month’s new season opener in Melbourne, he knows there is no longer the excuse of being a rookie.
The mental challenge of F1
“Last year, there’s pressure to see how I would do as a new driver. Now there’s probably more pressure knowing I’m in my second year and should perform,” he says. “[But] I’m a lot more relaxed and confident going into the first race because there’s so many more things that I now know.”
Norris has 21 races under his belt, but 12 months ago he was frantically going through notes and rules to learn anything and everything to prepare for – even the “most unlikely circumstances”.
It was these new mental challenges that Norris found most difficult when stepping up from Formula Two.
“You have to find the balance from qualifying to race performance, but then you go into the race and you have strategy and communication, which is more than in any other series,” he says.
“There’s a lot more going on, so mentally it’s much tougher, trying to cope but still focus on what’s most important.”
Being thrust not only into F1 but also one of the sport’s most iconic teams at such a young age has come with its own challenges, but Norris has matured quickly.
Despite growing a fanbase of more than 1.5m followers across Instagram and Twitter for his refreshingly open and insightful approach to social media, he is someone who self-admittedly “likes to be quite quiet at times” and spent the off-season “relaxing, on the simulator, going out with friends, out for dinner, normal stuff”.
Quiet Norris looking to assert himself in 2020
One aspect he is looking to develop, however, is his assertiveness in the car.
“I have several things which I’m putting my focus into improving,” says Norris, speaking at the premiere for the second season of Netflix series Drive to Survive.
“One of them is the mental factor of trying to cope with the strategy, communication, thinking about your own race, coming up with your own decisions, being more forceful on the team,” he says.
“When you go into F1 you don’t just go in with all the engineers and tell them to shut up and always say ‘I‘m right, you’re wrong’. But there’s times when maybe on their paper and what they see is right, and what I feel and what I want to feel is wrong, so I need to be more persuasive in what makes me perform at my best.”
Can he beat his team-mate?
Asked about his personal targets for 2020, the 20-year-old laughs off suggestions of a race win, such is the dominance of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, while he is also sceptical about the possibility of beating his team-mate over the season.
Last year Sainz, who claimed McLaren’s first podium in five years in Brazil, finished 47 points ahead of Norris in sixth, despite the Briton’s superior qualifying record of 11-10.
“I don’t think it should be expected for me to beat him in every race and finish ahead of him in the championship,” he says.
“Of course I would like to, but I don’t think that should be a turning point for if I’ve done terribly or not because of his [five-year] experience in Formula One versus mine.
“There are just lots of small targets I want to achieve, and if I can pull them all together and have a more smooth season than last year then the consistency will come through.”
Come 13 March, Norris will be hoping he has navigated the unpredictability and inconsistency of youth and is ready to take his performances up another gear.