Smart or scared? Why Lando Norris avoided a Max Verstappen battle

Michelle Foster
Lando Norris and Max Verstappen

Lando Norris and Max Verstappen

Lando Norris has told the world he’s not “scared” of taking on Max Verstappen as his Red Bull team-mate, and yet his actions – much to the disappointment of some F1 fans – belie his words.

After two years of Verstappen’s domination, the general argument in Formula 1 is not that the sport is lacking competition from other teams, it’s that it’s lacking competition. Period. Even a Red Bull v Red Bull rivalry.

Although 2021’s Verstappen v Lewis Hamilton title tussle is often highlighted as the best the sport has experienced in recent years, it’s fair to say the intra-Mercedes battle of 2016 between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg wasn’t far off.

Will Lando Norris come to regret his McLaren extension?

It’s not team against team F1 fans want, it’s driver versus driver, irrespective of the team. In fact, intra-team offers a different dimension and challenge.

But alas we won’t be getting that in 2024 as Sergio Perez is no match for Verstappen and it’s unlikely to materialise in 2025 as even a promotion for Daniel Ricciardo… well, he’ll know his place at Red Bull.

But with Norris, had he stepped up, that could’ve been a different story.

Linked to Perez’s Red Bull Racing seat with Helmut Marko saying he’s the right fit, there’s been a great deal of speculation over the past few months that the 13-time podium finisher’s future on the Formula 1 grid could be as a Red Bull driver.

And then he went and re-signed with McLaren.

Putting pen to paper on an extension that goes beyond 2026, Norris insists his decision to stay away from Verstappen was not a question of “are you scared or not scared”, rather it was the “smart” choice.

“Is Max one of the best drivers ever in Formula 1? Absolutely. I think he’s proved that enough,” said the Briton.

“He’s in a team which he’s very comfortable in, a lot of things are built around him, so for anyone – even the Max of a few years ago – to go in against the Max of now is extremely difficult.

“If you enter a team, are you in a position to challenge someone straight away? And are you comfortable to do that? And I think it’s a ‘no’ – for any driver. It takes time to adapt and takes time to get into place.

“And if you want to go against the best driver in the world, it’s not the best thing to do. It’s not a smart move to do.”

But is it scared, or is it smart?

Signing with Red Bull as Verstappen’s team-mate is no doubt the hardest job on the Formula 1 grid. Just ask Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo or Sergio Perez.

They are no mugs, in fact, they’re all Grand Prix winners, but they are not Verstappen. And perhaps, more to the point, they’re not Verstappen backed by Red Bull.

Making a name for himself when he joined the team at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix weekend, the Dutchman immediately endeared himself to the team by winning his debut race.

Said to be in a sort of father-son relationship with Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko, who played an integral role in the driver’s leap up into F1, Verstappen has a strong relationship with the Austrian, who is one of Red Bull’s founding fathers.

It’s no wonder that when the front wing hit the rear between Verstappen and Ricciardo at the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, it was the Dutchman who received the public backing of Marko with Ricciardo blamed for the incident.

That was just the first notable occasion were Marko, vilifier of Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon, and more recently Perez, nailed his colours to the Verstappen mast.

As such, Norris’ assessment that going against the “best driver in the world” at his team is “not the best thing to do” is not far off the truth.

But alas it does suggest a lack of courage or self-belief, despite Norris saying he is not afraid.

“I don’t think it’s a question of: are you scared or not scared? I don’t think I’d ever be scared of going up against anyone,” he insisted as the Red Bull rumours faded as the ink dried on his new McLaren contract.

His words belie his actions.

Lewis Hamilton took on Fernando Alonso, the reigning World Champion, at McLaren in 2007, Nico Rosberg fought Hamilton at Mercedes in 2016, Sebastian Vettel came from behind to beat Mark Webber at Red Bull in 2010, and Jacques Villeneuve dethroned his Williams team-mate Damon Hill in 1997.

These are all stories, the stuff of legends, that played out on the Formula 1 tracks as the underdog within the team beat the preferred driver.

It can and it does happen. It takes courage, it takes self-belief, and, of course, it takes the gamble of signing that contract. And don’t get me wrong, it is a gamble. A big one.

Norris didn’t do that. He even went as far as to take the possibility off the table with his multi-year McLaren commitment.

All in all, the Briton’s decision to re-sign with McLaren is not happy reading for the neutral Formula 1 fan.

Although the driver has not won a Grand Prix yet, 13 podiums without a P1, blame the car – both McLaren’s and Red Bull’s – not the driver as it’s clear with his spate of P2s he has the talent.

He recorded more runner-up results than Verstappen’s team-mate, Perez, last season, six to four, of which all but one of those was P2 to Verstappen.

He has the class and talent to challenge, he just needs the right car. In a sport where the car v driver debate rages, it’s clear to see from 2023’s 21 to 22 scorecard that the car plays the biggest role and then, if like the RB19 the car is in a league of its own, it’s up to the team-mates to battle it out.

Norris has now gambled that McLaren can give him that car and that he won’t have to beat Verstappen in equal Red Bull machinery to achieve a World title.

Here’s hoping in the years to come he doesn’t regret that the latter would’ve been the better bet…

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