As the chequered flag waved at Suzuka, Lando Norris moved to the top of an unusual list.
After almost five seasons in the sport, Norris has racked up 623 points across his career – the most of any driver yet to secure a win.
It is of course not a table Norris would want to see himself top of, but it can also be taken as evidence of how well he has performed as a driver.
Norris, who turns 24 today, both still feels like a newcomer to F1 and a veteran of the sport. Perhaps it is the baby face that he still has not quite grown out of regardless of how much facial hair he can grow, but the Norris of 2023 is far different from the Norris of 2019.
Young prodigies were all the rage in the late 2010s. Max Verstappen was breaking every age-related record going, Charles Leclerc was becoming the heir apparent to the Ferrari throne and, in Norris, McLaren believed they had unearthed one of their own.
Norris joined McLaren’s driving programme in 2017, earning the title of a “fabulous prospect” by CEO and shotcaller Zak Brown. In the same year, he tested the McLaren at the Hungaroring and his performance in subsequent tests was enough to earn him the role of test and reserve driver to Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne in 2018.
His Formula 1 education continued until McLaren, prompted by Alonso’s departure, ushered in their next era with not one but two new faces in the seats – Carlos Sainz and the 19-year-old Norris.
At the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, he became the youngest Briton ever to race in F1 and the 12th teenager to start a race. He would end the year with 49 points as the Woking outfit attempted to return from a dismal run that sent Alonso into retirement.
It was in the COVID-hit 2020 season hat Norris secured his first podium in Austria with an excellent drive and in particular a brilliant final lap to earn a spot in the top three thanks to Lewis Hamilton’s penalty.
2021 was another step forward. Norris failed to outscore Sainz in both years they were team-mates and with F1 veteran Daniel Ricciardo introduced into the fold, many thought it would be the same story. How wrong they were.
Ricciardo may have secured the team’s first win in nine years but in every other department, Norris was on top. He would end 2021 with four podiums and P6 in the championship.
That form earned him a new deal but it was the length of the contract that many questioned. In February 2022, Norris committed the next four seasons to McLaren, giving him one of the longest contracts on the grid.
But for a driver whose talent is undoubtedly enough to win races and titles, why did he choose to stay at a team that looked unable to build him a car that could challenge? Sensing which way the wind was blowingg, that was the reason why Hamilton chose to depart a decade previous and his six World Championships was clear vindication of that move.
Jenson Button, himself a former McLaren driver, questioned the call by the young Brit.
“For Lando, it was surprising that he signed such a long contract at the start of his career,” he said shortly after the deal was announced.
“We all want to be team players but you never know where the team is going to be in three years.”
McLaren’s form in the ensuing 2022 season was the opposite of what Norris would have hoped for. The MCL36 lacked the speed of its predecessor and whatever gains McLaren may have hoped to have made under the new regulations, they instead had to watch as overs leapfrogged them.
In 2023, the problem looked to have only worsened. Norris finished 17th in Bahrain, stopping a comical six times, while new team-mate Oscar Piastri was forced to retire with electrical issues.
Suddenly the future for Norris looked very bleak but work was going on behind the scenes in Woking. Out went technical director James Key with a three-man team lined up to replace him. The car which was supposed to be ready for the season start arrived for Norris in Austria and produced immediate results.
Pre-Austria, Norris finished on average 13th. His average finishing position since the upgrades has been fourth.
McLaren’s turnaround has been remarkable and one of the biggest in-season changes of performance in F1 for decades. Norris too has grown as a driver. Piastri’s talent while high is still quite raw and that has only served to show how much Norris has improved since his rookie season.
The performance of McLaren looks only likely to increase in the future as well. They are arguably the strongest candidate to challenge Red Bull in 2024 and with Rob Marshall arriving from Milton Keynes in January alongside David Sanchez of Ferrari, McLaren now have one of the best technical staff structures around.
While McLaren were able to poach Marshall away from Red Bull, there is interest in one staff member going in the other direction. It is no secret that Red Bull are interested in acquiring Norris’ services for Sergio Perez’s seat when the Mexican’s contract expires in 2025.
Rumours that the McLaren driver may even jump ship for 2024 seemed plausible given the early form of the team but now the landscape looks a lot different.
Verstappen is a little under two years older than Norris meaning the latter cannot rely on father time to remove the Dutchman from the title equation and if there is one thing that has been proven over the last decade, that second Red Bull seat is perhaps the hottest of them all.
Red Bull have always had a number one driver and to hire Norris would be diverging away from that philosophy but regardless of who sits in that seat, they will find themselves in Verstappen’s world.
The confidence of racing drivers means Norris would no doubt back himself to survive the pressure that swallowed up Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon and to an extent Perez but what are the advantages and disadvantages of such a move?
The advantage is obvious. Red Bull have strolled to the title in 2022 and 2023 and with chief designer Adrian Newey suggesting they have had plenty of time to work on their 2024 car, this far out it looks as if the occupant at the top of the food chain is unlikely to shift anytime soon.
Norris would also be moving into a title-winning organisation. Red Bull, along with Mercedes, have had a stranglehold on the championship since Sebastian Vettel’s first title in 2010. McLaren, on the other hand, have been trophyless since Hamilton’s 2008 success and very few people involved in that are still at the team today.
What that translates to is a lack of experience which can be vital during a hotly contested year. Team principal Andrea Stella has lived through title campaigns but they came under the days of Michael Schumacher. Christian Horner, on the other hand, has just masterminded back-to-back Constructors’ successes.
But what of the disadvantages? For a start, Norris would have to accept he is no longer the number one driver, a title he only really secured in 2022 and regardless of how much he backs himself, he would have to wrestle with the idea that life as Verstappen’s team-mate may not be all that pleasant even if they are great friends away from the track.
But there is perhaps a bigger pull that would see Norris stay in papaya and that is legacy. McLaren are behind only Ferrari in terms of the history of the current crop and some of the sport’s best-ever drivers have worn McLaren overalls.
Lauda, Prost, Häkkinen, Hunt, Fittipaldi, Hamilton, Senna – these are some of the most iconic names to ever climb into a Formula 1 car and Norris could well join them one day.
The allure of your childhood team is also very strong. Charles Leclerc’s love of Ferrari is arguably the reason why he has not already moved away from the crisis-ridden team. Hamilton was at a crossroads in his decision to leave McLaren and had it not been for the fact that he also raced with Mercedes in his youth then he may not have made the decision he did.
Driving for one team is also very rare. Of the current 20 drivers who have competed in four or more seasons, it is Norris alone who has only ever driven for one team.
Norris then has a chance to leave a legacy in F1 and not one that is based solely on statistics. Inside the McLaren factory there are statues of Bruce McLaren, Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. It would not be surprising if Norris was to one day join them on the famous Boulevard.
With his deal expiring in 2025, Norris’ future will likely be decided next season but not since the days of Hamilton has there been a better time to drive for McLaren. A star-studded technical team, a quick car and a determination to move back to the front of the grid.
If the question in 2022 was why would Norris stay, the question now is why would he leave?