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Lando Norris: nice guy finishes first after long road to top of F1 | Giles Richards
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Lando Norris: nice guy finishes first after long road to top of F1 | Giles Richards

Lando Norris’s debut Formula One victory in the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday may have taken an awfully long time for a driver with such prodigious talent but it is without doubt a win well-deserved. This is the culmination of a 19-year journey that was almost over before it had begun at the age of five when his parents got cold feet over his attempt to emulate Valentino Rossi.

Norris is respected and well-liked throughout the paddock, an endearing 24-year-old who hangs out to do the clear-up work with the team, and who his mechanics consider “a friend as well as a driver”. That the victory could not have happened to a nicer bloke has been the rudimentary but accurate assessment.

After the McLaren driver’s superb win in Florida, his first of 110 race starts, he believes he has comprehensively proved wrong those who had questioned his ability and will to face down the world champion Max Verstappen. It was a straight fight in which the Dutchman was beaten comfortably into second.

Norris’s journey to F1 might easily have been derailed. As a child he followed Rossi in MotoGP and his mum, Cisca, and his dad, Adam, believed it was a phase he was going through, but indulged him with a quad bike as a present for his fifth birthday.

“They gave me a little red plastic quad bike and that’s one of the earliest memories of my life,’ he told me when we spoke about his life and career for my book F1 Racing Confidential. “I loved it but within a few months they sold it because it was too dangerous. Mum and Dad didn’t like seeing me go round corners on two wheels. They didn’t tell me, I just came back from school one day and it was gone. There were a lot of tears for several days, because I really loved that bike.”

When the tears had dried, Norris kept up the pressure on his parents and they let him have a 50cc motorbike to ride round the garden. A trip to the Clay Pigeon kart track in Dorset followed and the six-year-old was captivated.

Lando Norris leads the way in MiamiView image in fullscreen

He took to karting with a passion and the memories remain vivid today, such as the time another driver’s father donated a race suit.

“It was one of those moments when you get something when you are young and you never want to let go of it,” he said. “I slept in it even though it was smelly and old. The boots were way, way too big but I would wear it all day at home, it was awesome. We still have it, my dad kept it as it was my first ever race suit.”

These years were also instructive of just how determined Norris was. He has taken flak about his ability and competitiveness on social media but even as a kid there was no shortage of grit on display.

He admitted he was smaller and lighter as a youngster, bullied on the track in the British kart championship, but when he grew and had a competitive kart, the wins began coming. At 13 he decided it was not only something he enjoyed but that he really could pursue. This time Mum and Dad backed him.

After karting, success in F4 was followed by Formula Renault and F3. McLaren spotted him early and in 2017 took him on as a junior and simulator driver when he was 16. Only a year later, he took part in his first F1 free practice session in Spa and in the back of his Carlin F2 team truck at Monza, in 2018, Norris signed the deal that would put him in Formula One in 2019.

It had been a remarkably rapid rise and some questioned McLaren’s commitment to him. Yet Norris has more than delivered. He has developed from rookie to team leader, a confident, experienced driver, helping the team move forward and unafraid to go wheel to wheel with the best in the sport. Lewis Hamilton has acknowledged him as a fair and fearsome competitor and while that debut win remained elusive Norris was unbowed.

During his time as a reserve driver he would join the mechanics and help strip down the car after races, building friendships and relationships that endure to this day. Before the victory in Miami his No 2 mechanic, Frazer Burchell, said he felt you could never rule out Norris having a shot at something special. How right he was.

Burchell is the man who holds the front jack on Norris’s car when it enters the pits – a ballsy job that requires immense trust between mechanic and driver – and also straps him into the car before the off. Few are better placed to pass judgment on F1’s latest winner.

Lando Norris celebrates with the McLaren teamView image in fullscreen

“I have known him since he was a junior driver at McLaren,” Burchell said. “Lando was 19 when he first signed as a reserve, so he would come to race weekends as an unknown and would come out for dinner with us when we went out in the evenings. He is unique as quite often if his flight is the same night as us, he will come into the garage and help strip the car.

“He will chat with us and chill out, he won’t sit in his driver’s room or go back to the hotel, he will happily come into the garage and be with us instead. So we all see him as a friend as well as a driver.”

Which is no little compliment and a huge endorsement of a driver who has the potential to be world champion. Burchell was front and centre when Norris threw himself into the arms of his crew after climbing from his car in Miami. A moment understandably celebrated with enormous pleasure by everyone at McLaren.

They had not won since Monza in 2021 in what has been over a decade of struggle, Miami Dolphins Hard Rock stadium may yet take some time to be scoured of the scent of champagne from their celebrations. The party lasted long into the night but this is likely only the beginning. The first win is always the hardest and now Norris has put that to bed, more will surely follow.

Source: theguardian.com