The way Lando Norris sums up his stellar 2016 season is endearingly modest. “I was pretty consistent,” he says, followed by a long and ruminative pause as if he’s rummaging through his mental locker in search of positives. “Qualifying was a strong point for me – at one point I had 12 poles in a row, which was pretty cool…”
Let us say it for him. Lando – who only turned 17 last November – excelled throughout 2016, contesting not one but three full racing championships. He won all of them: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, Formula Renault 2.0 NEC and the Toyota Racing Series.
Since this schedule didn’t quite fill all the available weekends of the year or sate his voracious appetite for competition, he also raced in four of the eight rounds of the British Formula 3 Championship, claiming enough points to rank eighth. This season he’s stepping up to the European level of that competition with leading team Carlin.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, a prize to which all young British racing drivers aspire. Precious few make the shortlist every year and only one gets the nod from the famously stringent judging panel.
Talk us through the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award. How did that come together for you?
“First of all it was a cool experience. To drive a McLaren GT3, a Mercedes DTM car and an F2 car was exciting, and very different from what I’d driven before. It was a three-day event – the first was given over to fitness work, the final two to testing.
“The only tin-top I’d ever driven in the past was a Ginetta, so the McLaren and the Mercedes were different, not only from each other but also from my previous experience. The judges were looking not just for overall speed but also for adaptability – being able to move from one car to another and be fast from the off.
“I was maybe at a slight disadvantage because the others [Ricky Collard, Sennan Fielding and Toby Sowery] had done it [reached the shortlist and gone through the judging process] before, so they had a bit of a feel for what the GT3, DTM and F2 cars would be like. But I felt pretty confident straight away with all of them, even the GT3 and DTM, which were hard to drive. I’d quite like to race them in the future – after Formula 1 of course!”
Under the unflinching gaze of a judging panel including British Racing Drivers’ Club president Derek Warwick and Le Mans 24 Hours winner David Brabham, each of the finalists had to complete a range of long and short runs in each car, on both new and used rubber. For added rigour and to highlight rogue results caused by changing track conditions, works drivers Rob Bell (McLaren) and Maximilian Gotz (Mercedes) set ‘control’ laps throughout each day.
Lando was the fastest – or not far off the fastest – in every exercise.
“It really doesn’t take long for you to see the talent on track,” says Brabham. “Lando’s commitment, braking technique and lines stood out straight away. He was very consistent, unflustered throughout the test, and very mature for his age.”
The Autosport Awards are motor racing’s equivalent of the Oscars. What did it feel like on the night to win the headline Award?
“It did get a bit tense… I’d won Club Driver of the Year, and the word was that if you win that then you don’t win the main Award. But Will Palmer won both last year, so the curse was lifted, so to speak.
“So I was quite tense, but at the same time I was confident that I’d done a good job in all of the cars – that I’d been, if not fastest in all of them, that I was at least in the top two. I felt I’d been very good in the qualifying runs, in getting a feel for the grip on the out-lap and then really being able to push. Even with the DTM car, which is quite reliant on downforce, it only took me three or so laps to get to grips with it.
“You weren’t allowed to know what times the other drivers had done, so it was difficult for me to compare my performance with the others unless I saw them on track or was catching them up. Even so, I felt confident that I’d put in a good performance across the two days.”
Your career had a good momentum already, based on your racing results, so you probably didn’t need to win the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award to open doors – how do you view it?
“The test is for the four best drivers the judges have picked, and from that small group those judges then pick a winner purely on how they’ve performed across the three days, in equal conditions and in equal equipment.
“I’ve been very lucky to work with – and win with – some of the best teams. Because of that, it’s very easy for people to say, ‘Well, you’re only winning because you’re with the best team.’
“The MABA is a pure test of skill – the conditions are as equal as they can be. So, on top of everything else that comes with the prize [which includes regular time in the McLaren simulator], it’s a very compelling counter to any criticism of that kind.”
European F3 – the category in which Max Verstappen shot to fame before graduating to F1 – is tightly contested between a number of top teams, of which Carlin is undoubtedly one. But that’s no guarantee of securing the title, particularly against well-resourced opposition such as Mick Schumacher (son of Michael), who is driving for Prema Powerteam.
What are your expectations for this season? Is it going to be even more challenging than last year?
“It’s going to be difficult going against Prema – they’ve won it for the past four or five years. Carlin have been there or thereabouts in those years, and they’re a very good team. I believe we’ll be able to improve the car to match the standards Prema are setting.
“I’ve worked with Carlin already during my single-seater career. I know the engineers and mechanics pretty well, they’re based not far from where I live, and overall they’re a team you can really feel part of, one you can settle down with.
“Having that relationship – building a solid team around you – is really important if we’re going to take it to a team like Prema. It might seem optimistic to be talking about winning the championship, but I won two Formula Renault championships last year as well as the Toyota Racing Series, so I’ve got the belief that I can win F3 as well.
“Saying that, this is going to be the hardest year of anything I’ve done so far.”
You’re also beginning a new association with McLaren. What does it feel like – not just to be part of a historic brand, but also to be working as a racing driver in this environment?
“It’s definitely a step towards my dream of being in Formula 1. The facilities at McLaren are fantastic. I’ll be using the same simulator, the same gym, as some of the greatest F1 drivers in recent years.
“The team also has a lot of data that will be really valuable for me to compare myself with other drivers who have come through. I’ll know what level I need to be at to drive in F1 – so if that chance comes, I’ll be fit and ready to jump in straight away.”
This year the MABA prize has changed in that rather than having a test in our F1 car at the end of the season, you have a paid job as a driver in our simulator. What is that going to involve?
“I’ll be working alongside Oliver Turvey, who has a great connection with everyone here because he’s been part of McLaren for several years. I’ve just had my first day in the sim and it’s going to be a learning process – that is, learning what they want from me feedback-wise.
“Oliver will be taking the lead, certainly to begin with, because he has more experience in the simulator and he knows what all the cars feel like, so he is best placed to drive development. But there will be times when he isn’t here, since he has a Formula E drive, so I need to get myself into a position to be able to pick up from him and push everything forward when he isn’t available.”
Lastly, there’s something else we need to know about you. Where does your Christian name come from – Star Wars?
“No, definitely not! My parents say they just came up with it. But I do get asked that a lot…”