Can McLaren keep up with Lando’s rise?

Oliver Harden
McLaren driver Lando Norris in the garage. Australia April 2022.

It was around this time last year, as the summer heat intensified, that Lando Norris’ breakthrough season in Formula 1 truly began to take off.

Two podium finishes in the first five races had represented a fine start to his third season at McLaren, but it wasn’t until F1’s double-header in Austria that Norris stopped being just another effervescent young driver and started to have the look and feel of a future World Champion.

The only driver to intrude on the Red Bull-Mercedes battle in qualifying for the first race in Spielberg, Norris returned a week later to qualify within half a tenth of pole position and, after being penalised for the crime of defending against Sergio Perez, was eventually rewarded with his third podium of 2021.

Then, later in the season, came his blistering, almost effortless pace for two-thirds of a wet qualifying session at Spa. Then came his maiden pole position, achieved in challenging conditions in Russia.

Then, yes, came the rain in Sochi, which denied him the victory his body of work across the season so deserved.

A star was born in 2021 and it is to Norris’ great credit that it has only continued to rise in what has been a more difficult second season for the McLaren-Mercedes enterprise.

His third-place finish at Imola remains the clear – perhaps only – highlight of 2022 for Norris, who after nine races has 51 fewer points than at this stage a year ago, as McLaren have struggled to hit the same heights under the new regulations.

The team remain fourth in the Constructors’ standings, the same spot they ultimately ended last season, yet their grip on the best-of-the-rest position behind Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes is far less secure than it was in 2021.

And after setting a certain standard and becoming accustomed to the taste of success last season, there have been small and occasional hints that Norris wants, and maybe now expects, more from McLaren.

Following his race-ending crash with Pierre Gasly in Miami, Norris’ verdict was that his retirement wasn’t ”the end of the world” on a day he was unlikely to finish any higher than eighth anyway, the implication being that fighting for minor points positions no longer stimulates him.

Another sign that he sets his sights considerably higher these days came after he was instructed to hold position in ninth, behind team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, in the closing stages of the recent Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

“It’s eighth or ninth, either way around, I don’t really mind,” he told the F1 Nation podcast in the days after the race. “I’m only here to win races and win a Championship. I’m not going to win the Championship this year.

“Instead, it’s just about making sure we can get the most points for the Constructors’ [Championship]. The more we can, the more money we get and the easier it is for the team to spend it on good things.”

Ever since his grand prix debut in 2019 Norris, a vibrant talent with the natural charm of the boy next door, has been the embodiment of the “young team” Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl are building at McLaren, free from the underachievement of the previous era.

Yet if his current trajectory continues, is there a danger that there will come a point – potentially quite soon – when Norris begins to outgrow them?

If Norris’ performances, coupled with Ricciardo’s surprise victory at Monza, had many daring to dream that 2021 could be used as a springboard to a 2022 title challenge, this season has shown McLaren still have some way to go before they can again compete for wins on a regular basis.

Even prior to this season, there was a sense the 2022 regulations had come a little too soon in McLaren’s development for the team to capitalise on F1’s latest rules reset in the same fashion as Ferrari, their closest competitors in 2021.

McLaren’s revelation last week that the MCL36 car will receive no more major upgrades for the remainder of this season reflects a need to do better in 2023, and central to their improvement will be the opening of a new wind tunnel, ordered by Seidl shortly after his arrival in 2019 and scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

Although its impact may not be fully apparent on track until 2024, the new wind tunnel will mark a significant milestone in McLaren’s re-emergence, yet the team’s status as Mercedes customers risks preserving their glass ceiling.

Ron Dennis’ belief that a team cannot win the World Championship without a works engine deal in the modern era may have led to McLaren’s disastrous partnership with Honda, but nine seasons into F1’s hybrid era there has been nothing yet to suggest his assessment was incorrect.

Despite their refusal to sell the team, McLaren’s discussions with Audi – and, according to a report by respected German publication Auto Motor und Sport in April, BMW – within the last 12 months possibly indicates they view their ongoing customer status as a likely limit on their ultimate ambitions.

Having signed a contract extension until the end of 2025 as recently as February, Norris is in an ideal position to closely observe and oversee the evolution of McLaren.

Yet just as there are “mechanisms” in Ricciardo’s contract, according to Brown, that could see him leave McLaren as soon as the end of this season, surely there will be similar performance-related clauses in Norris’ new deal if the team’s growth is stunted.

Lando Norris smiling as he speaks with his McLaren team. Monaco May 2022

His nationality and his status as a graduate of McLaren’s junior scheme, not to mention his natural touch and feel for a racing car, mean Norris will forever be likened to Lewis Hamilton, who at 37 is entering the final 18 months of his existing Mercedes contract.

The debate over who will eventually be the one to succeed Hamilton at Mercedes has become one of the most tantalising in sport, and when the time comes it would be no surprise if Norris were near the top of Toto Wolff’s list.

In such a scenario it is tempting to imagine Mercedes following a similar route to when they last replaced a retired World Champion in 2016/17 – taking a promising young driver [Valtteri Bottas] from a customer team [Williams] in exchange for a big bag of money and a pat on the head.

If last season hinted there is no limit to Norris’ potential, this season has suggested there is one, at least in their current guise, to McLaren’s.

They have already achieved a lot together and are a perfect fit in so many ways, but it remains to be seen whether the team can evolve quickly enough to satisfy the ambitions of their little gem over the long term.

Put simply, it is up to McLaren to keep the pace with Lando’s rise.

 

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