Lando Norris is a kid who doesn't take himself too seriously. He is a breath of fresh air, in a paddock accustomed to seeing the arrival of young people already turned into robots thanks to manufacturers, brands of drinks or other such groups. Teenagers who have learned their lesson well. Between calibrated responses, corporate reflexes and timid positions on hot topics, they know how to take no risks in front of microphones and cameras to offer the image of the new standard that they intend to embody. We have nevertheless forgotten a detail: when family fortune gets involved, then media picture can become quite bleak, and unkind. Fortunately, the native of Bristol has kept his natural style to escape the reproaches that many would make of Lance Stroll, another son of the wealthy. Not super fast and full of certainties.
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Yes, Lando Norris is an heir. But don't put him in the same category as his Canadian contemporary just for that. Don't tell him he's there thanks to his father, a 49-year-old businessman whose successes in finance across the Channel peaked the bank account at over €225 million in 2018. "I don't really like to talk about it, but compared to Lance Stroll, my father is really not rich!", Norris says. It is true, Lawrence Stroll, ten times richer, paid for rides for his son at Williams before buying him a stable in Formula 1, at Racing Point, whereas Adam Norris never considered a similar path. He just surrounded his offspring with what is necessary in the lower categories: coach, physio, manager, etc.
To silence the doubters, the ultimate argument is always going to be what you have won. There, the ambiguity is lifted: Norris was European karting champion in 2013 before becoming the youngest world champion in 2014. Then his transition to the single-seater was the start of another flawless career, in the Toyota Series and in the two most renowned championships of Formula Renault. Winner of the McLaren Autosport Award, which celebrates the great British hope of the moment, he followed up with a European crown in Formula 3, in 2017, under the banner of the team of Woking. Which gives him even more strength to say that all of this "was not bought by my father's millions."
Zak Brown not as rigid as Ron Dennis
So, you'd think it was the perfect story of a kid who won everything by the force of his wrist and foot on the accelerator, but 2018 marked a first - relative - failure of a previously perfect ascent. In Formula 2, he was beaten by compatriot, and friend, George Russell. To be honest, there was no match: after an opening victory in Sakhir, Norris had a terrible championship. No victory whilst Russell, the new jewel of Mercedes, won seven! His performances are perhaps explained by the virtual assurance that he would be promoted to be a driver at McLaren in Formula 1 in 2019. He understood that it was not necessary to blaze but to show consistency and maturity. To his credit though, he was driving for Carlin, a team that has never been in the same category as Russell's French team ART.
In Woking, there is a culture of excellence. Ron Dennis had demanded that Lewis Hamilton win each of his championships to go up to the next level. Fortunately, Zak Brown had more flexible criteria and, above all, two apprentice champions up his sleeve. It was necessary to decide and, without a doubt, Lando Norris did better than his rival, Nyck de Vries on the same tracks.
For the McLaren chief executive, trusting a 20-year-old was still a risk. He decided to find a way to minimise that risk. In January 2018, at Daytona, he teamed up Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso with Phil Hanson at United Autosports, a team he manages in co-ownership. The car is a Ligier from LMP2, qualified 13th by Alonso. No question of general victory, then, but to start to get his teeth in endurance racing for the Spaniard, and to manage a 24-hour race for the Englishman. With traffic of 50 cars with significant performance differentials, its weather vagaries also...
At the end of the Floridian event and a lot of technical problems, a 38th place for the Ligier JS P217 No.23 and a double world champion raving.
"For people who didn't know Lando, it's a surprise," Alonso said.
“The relays he made were incredible. That night, when it started to rain, we were fifth at a minute from the leader. Then we used the 'slick' on a wet track, and with Lando at the wheel we came back at 27 seconds. On a wet track, for his first in a prototype, his first at Daytona, his first with Continental tyres, he took 33 seconds. At 18, it's pretty impressive."
Going through this experience with a figure like Alonso and a specialist like Hanson was a test of humility. The young Briton could have thought he was bigger than the situation, as sometimes happens. He was able to stay grounded and this attitude helped him less than a year later, when he was a team-mate for Carlos Sainz in the Grand Prix.
"Every time I took the track, I enjoyed myself. The idea of doing it was totally that," he said.
“It's more of a team game, which I'm used to: we want to do well for everyone."
And, for sure, he will seize every opportunity as a chance to become a better driver. For him, for the others. "I really belong to those drivers who want to do Daytona, Le Mans and Indy 500," he says. If I have the opportunity, I will do it in GT, LMP2, and everything else. But I have to see how strict Formula 1 is, what it allows me to do."
In 2019, the Bristol native is one of two British rookies in a Formula One that lives on the rhythm of Lewis Hamilton's exploits. He's already under pressure, but he's starting at McLaren... So it's "no parties or alcohol." "I don't want to end up blaming myself if my career ends in failure," he said.
"He is a pop culture geek, lives in the digital dimension"
Sportingly, he has everything on his side and in the media he intends to control everything. At a level of detail that we do haven't seen before ... His race number, for example, will be part of a global communication strategy.
"I wanted to race with the 46 but I didn't just want to be a copycat, so I chose something for myself," says Norris, who was a biker himself before becoming a kartman and is a huge fan of Valentino Rossi.
“I chose something new that fits perfectly into my logo." He is not writing his biography as Lewis Hamilton did in GP2, but he has already planned everything on the front of communication and merchandising, apart from what McLaren will impose on him... This providential number is therefore the... 4. An evocation of VR46 at first glance, but not only. It fits perfectly with the hashtag #L4ndo...
Be careful, we shouldn't take this lightly. This #L4ndo is the gateway to the world of Lando Norris. An area where humour and self-deprecation are contested. "It's not that I make fun of myself," he says. It's more that I don't take myself as seriously as others maybe, and that's more my personality. I'm not super serious, never afraid to laugh, etc. I have a team that oversees my social networks and my website. These are group decisions. But I do most of the messages and the funny stuff myself."
"He has all the understanding of the new generation and he is perfectly in the trend of what Formula 1 is looking for today to rejuvenate its audience of spectators, viewers," points out Pierre Guyonnet, communications director of the French Grand Prix.
“He was one of the first to promote Esports on his social networks, to share his sessions on YouTube and Twitch. He has the pop culture, geek and digital dimension which the new promoters of the championship want to rely since their arrival in 2017. And at home, it goes a lot through humor and memes. He is very interesting in his interactions with the other drivers, as well as his fans. On this side, it brings a real touch of freshness. In addition, he is a very good driver, as we have just seen at the Austrian Grand Prix."
In a purely sporting setting, Lando Norris, creates videos every race weekend videos sometimes funny, sometimes memorable and moving. "Are you crying?" asked his performance engineer, who was bidding farewell to the competition at the last 2019 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.
On Friday the driver had exploded with laughter with this effigy on his helmet.
How far does his spontaneity go? This is the question because it is all done to sell the Lando Norris brand.
"It takes 20 seconds to like a few posts or reply to certain people. It's a good thing ... especially if I want more fans!", He admits. With 514,000 followers on Twitter, 1.6 million on Instagram, 150,000 on Facebook the day after his first Formula 1 podium in Austria, we can say that the strategy is working.
To all of this, Lando Norris added a special note in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, by showing that how much he wanted to help others in these dramatic times.
"He was one of the first drivers to speak immediately of the NHS, and it gave him a lot of visibility in Great Britain," notes Pierre Guyonnet.
"Esports has helped immensely"
He's also very involved in sim racing - with Max Verstappen - even before the explosion of Esports during lockdown. Lando Norris seems to be mistaken for the dream driver that Liberty Media, the promoter of the world championship, wants to see to embody the new Formula 1, one capable of attracting a younger audience.
More surely, he is the hope that McLaren was waiting for in order to regain the golden age of Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton. And we already know that Woking was right to resign him until 2022. After a season of discovery of the discipline, when he admitted to being too timid on certain occasions, he started the 2020 exercise in dominating Carlos Sainz, who will be a Ferrari driver in 2021, Saturday and Sunday. Over the distance of a race, he managed his business with foresight, without ever making a mistake. He gave in without hesitation to Alexander Albon (Red Bull) better armed than him at the start of the race, then in the same way to Sergio Pérez (Racing Point) near the halfway point. Guilty of a small fault seven laps from the finish, he did not bow to Charles Leclerc and his Ferrari either. It was to reserve the best in the 71st and last lap: an outrageous assault on Pérez for fourth place, and a rush crowned with success with all the power of Renault granted by its stand to eject Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), penalized five seconds from the Top 3.
"He has enormous experience in Esports, and I think it is a real added value for racing drivers," said Eric Bouiller, who welcomed him into the McLaren drivers pool when he was the Director of Competition, in Woking. "He knew that, as they say, to win you have to finish the race first. He has this cautious approach and was not mistaken in a fight on Sunday. He has understood several times that shouldn't keep someone from doubling up because they had a faster car, cooler tires, or whatever. However, later in the race, there may be events that can get places back. That was Hamilton's penalty, among other things. On this subject, he is very mature and I think Esport has helped him enormously." The third youngest driver on a podium, Lando Norris, remember the name.