🇦🇹 F1'23: R9 - A team leader emerges and evolves

Lando Norris loves Austria. Pass it on.

Track limits seemed to be the focus during the Austrian GP with numerous drivers complaining about everyone else’s behaviour at turn 10 - the final corner on the F1 calendar’s shortest circuit. But one driver avoided picking up a sanction and it helped him to a top-five finish, at a circuit he knows very well.

McLaren’s Lando Norris secured his best finish since Singapore last season and offered a big punch in the arm for McLaren at the same time. A fifth in Austria brings in 10 points, near doubling what he already had and leapfrogging Alpine’s Pierre Gasly. 

But this isn’t even his best result in Austria. In fact, over the course of his career, Lando Norris has generated 75 points from races in Austria, his next best is Imola with 38 points. Everytime Lando Norris has turned up in the green Styrian hills, he has taken points. Occasionally, he even brings back a podium.

In his first year with McLaren, Austria equalled his best result, coming home in sixth and finishing ahead of Gasly that year, who was in a Red Bull at the time. Spielberg wasn’t the sit up and take notice performance as people already knew how good Norris could be after a sixth in Bahrain too, but it gave people reasons to start adding Norris onto their “potential future world champion” listicles.

He didn’t get a better result than sixth in Sakhir and Spielberg, but after a few months of delays, the 2020 season saw him go a few places better and really made people sit up and take notice.

With no chance of catching Lewis Hamilton on track, Norris was told that the seven-time champion had a five-second penalty and it was time to put in a couple of qualifying laps to get within five. He managed it to score his first career F1 podium. A huge result for the team and perhaps an indication that the 2020 season was where F1 was about to get weird.

As 2020 was the first COVID-hit season, Austria hosted a double-header. Norris took a fifth that was his best result of the season as McLaren finished third in the constructors, helped a little bit by Racing Point receiving a sanction.

Let’s go forward to 2021 and another double header in Austria. Norris took a fifth and a third this time, again leaving Austria with 25 points. But it was Hamilton, who knows what it takes about being a great driver, who praised his countryman as he passed him saying “such a great driver”. And yes, of course he’d say that as he looks at the shrinking papaya car in his mirrors, but Norris had held him up for a while even before that. 

Even in qualifying for one of the races, Norris started in second for the first time in his career, only narrowly being beaten out by a dominant Max Verstappen. 

In 2022, it was down to Norris to drive the team forward. He took the first of five seventh-placed finishes in six races. He finished the year in seventh, miles behind Hamilton, but there’s no shame in that, as it was the best of the rest behind the Ferraris, Red Bulls and Mercedes. It was perhaps telling that Norris finished seventh, but his McLaren team finished fifth behind the more consistent Alpine pairing.

It was a sign of confidence in Lando that McLaren were happy to let Daniel Ricciardo walk. Sure, he probably wasn’t as happy or as confident as the rest of the F1 world was used to, but they let him walk a year early, replacing him with Oscar Piastri and letting Norris be the undisputed lead driver at the team.

One piece of telltale data that McLaren would have seen was Norris’ performance vs his teammates in the years he has been at the team. Every year - including this one - he has increased his points percentage against Sainz, Ricciardo and now Piastri. 

Looking at this weekend just gone and Hamilton again comes up. When the Mercedes legend passed him at the start, it looked like Norris rolling over for him, but unlike previous years, he didn’t give up and got back past him, eventually taking another fifth place and keeping his streak on finishing higher than his teammate up for another race. 

Norris is the clear leader of his team now and there’s one more story from this year’s tour around Austria. This one comes from the sprint. An impressive shootout performance put Norris in third for the 100km race. He had a terrible start, with his car going into anti-stall on the first lap and seeing several rivals pass him. 

“I just got a bit sideways and I just went into anti-stall, and I was revving at Turn 3. So that cost me everything. I don’t know why it happened. My Turn 3 was OK, I think, [I] obviously got close [to Verstappen and Perez] but I just went into anti-stall so I lost everything. I was basically in neutral just watching everyone drive past.”

Norris explaining his Austrian sprint disaster to Sky Sports, reported by Planet F1

Eventually, after a tactical 24-lap sprint with changing weather conditions, Norris finished in the worst position - ninth, just outside the points, and it would have been easy for him to retreat back into his shell and passively attempt to take maybe 8th behind the more established points scorers. Instead, he stayed ahead of the Aston Martins and Mercs to finish fifth, taking driver of the day in the process.

If a seat opened up at the top, Norris would be the most intriguing option. Let’s speculate on if Hamilton was to suddenly leave… young, British driver (albeit one that doesn’t have a statement win yet), marketable, good media presence off the track, and a strong fanbase that will last beyond his time with McLaren. He’s tied down to a contract, but as McLaren themselves have proved, if you’ve got some replacements in the wings, it can be used as a bargaining tool. 

Norris and Russell would be a competitive partnership, but without that maiden victory, there is still a long way in Norris’ journey to come.

It’s a home race next for Norris as Silverstone is the second stop for the grid in July. Points will obviously be the target, and with the upgrades McLaren have been working on, this result in Austria could see them get closer to Alpine in the race for fifth.

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