Lando Norris is the go-to name right now when discussing who could step up to one of Formula 1’s top seats, but the generosity which he showed to his team-mate in Jeddah is a dangerous game.
For the first time in his Formula 1 career, the 2023 season sees Norris serving as the experienced, wise head in the McLaren line-up.
Yes, he is still only 23, but this is now his fifth campaign, and on the other side of the garage is Australian rookie Oscar Piastri, for whom the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was only his second as a Formula 1 driver.
This is a totally new dynamic for Norris, who when he started out at McLaren held his own against a slightly more experienced Carlos Sainz, and from there saw his stock skyrocket when he dominated a multi-time race winner and veteran of the grid in Daniel Ricciardo.
How much of that was Norris’ superior skill over Ricciardo’s struggles to adapt to McLaren machinery and the consequential draining of confidence? We may never know, but that did not really matter for Norris, who is seen as the potential World Champion outside of the leading seats; Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes all teams Norris has been linked with joining.
Norris was simply ruthless alongside Ricciardo at McLaren, doing most of the heavy lifting when it came to points scoring while absent of any sympathy for his team-mate’s struggles. And after all, why should he have been sympathetic?
There was a moment though at the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP, and a post-race reaction from Norris, which represented a lowering of this veil a little alongside his new rookie team-mate Piastri.
McLaren have endured a torrid start to the season, Piastri’s qualifying performance in Jeddah a rare positive as he made it through to Q3 for the first time in his career, while Norris hit the wall in Q1 and sealed his elimination, already an uncharacteristic error from the Brit.
But it just about summed up their current luck come race day when Piastri sustained front-wing damage in a collision at the start with Pierre Gasly, while Norris then ran over the debris, meaning both McLarens had to pit for new front wings and dropped to the back.
Neither really recovered from there, Piastri finished P15 and Norris P17 out of 18 classified drivers come the chequered flag, but it was when McLaren utilised team orders that we saw a softer side to Norris on the track.
As the pair tussled for position, Piastri making the overtake before Norris soon re-passed, McLaren instructed Norris to “not make it too difficult for Oscar” and he duly obliged, opening the door to let his team-mate through.
Asked about the team order by Sky Sports F1, Norris said: “He didn’t make it difficult for me and I mean I quite easily could have probably kept the position at the end as I got past the Williams.
“But yeah I just let him go in the end. It would be different if I was fighting for points, but 16th and 17th…”
The problem is, McLaren at the moment even on a clean day seem like a team only perhaps capable of nicking a point or two, and this means that Norris has to remain selfish and ruthless out there on the track now that it is much harder to prove to the top teams what he is capable of.
Sure, you could argue that he has already done that, but Formula 1 moves on quickly, and while Norris is hot right now, a season left lapping around the rear of the field would be more than enough to risk that momentum and interest drying up if he does not put Piastri in his place.
Pierre Gasly was an example. His best F1 season yet in F1 2021 left many puzzled at Red Bull’s decision not to give him a second chance in their line-up, but with the 2022 AlphaTauri challenger not of the same level to allow Gasly to excel, those Red Bull links quickly faded. He at least landed on his feet with an Alpine drive.
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Norris really cannot afford to give his team-mate an inch, and yes, you could argue that Norris is also taking a big risk if he rocks the boat within McLaren, potentially creating some dissension, but what is the worst that can happen really?
McLaren are not going to look to replace him by choice, as right now the battle is just to keep Norris invested in the project and believing in their promise that this decline over recent years will soon be followed by title pursuits.
Piastri arguably was the McLaren driver who shone in Jeddah, a multi-time champ in the junior series who said that he is continuing to gain confidence at the wheel of the MCL60, and that was very evident from his on-track display.
Norris cannot afford many more repeats of this when the achievements possible in a McLaren are rather limited, or Piastri will turn into the hot prospect with all the attention from the top teams.
And that stage, Norris would have no choice but to continue to bet on this McLaren project which right now, is alarmingly moving in the wrong direction.