🇨🇳 F1'24: R5: Nearly, Really

I worry about Lando Norris

Don’t get me wrong. I worry about a lot of things. The UK Government, whether Norwich City will get to the playoffs, the fact that this edition of the blog is late (I was playing golf badly, so we’ve made 19,000 steps and sworn creatively all day). But I still worry about the McLaren driver.

He has had a great result in China, finishing second behind Max Verstappen. And any driver who does that behind the Red Bull machine and the three-time World Champion can leave work that day knowing they got the most out of their Sunday, but I still worry. 

Because this podium finish makes it 15, all in McLaren papaya, without taking the top step for Norris. The Brit holds the unwanted record for the most podium finishes without a win - his third-place finish in Australia earlier this year meant he took the record clear from Nick Heidfeld. A look at the others on this list includes Martin Brundle (9), Alex Wurz (3) and even Jos Verstappen (2). It’s a list of Formula 1’s nearly men, and there’s only one way to get off this list as a permanent member - win a damn race.

A feat that’s easily said than done. Even when McLaren can use safety cars and strategy to their advantage, and have two drivers on form and a happy team, second was really first for the other cars not using number 1. The sprint race was telling. Norris took sprint pole and lost it within a few hundred metres and running wide into turn 1, allowing Lewis Hamilton to take advantage. 

Maybe Norris is trying too hard. He knows he holds this record, and being at the front is causing more pressure than he may be comfortable with. He is sort of heading up the team, as the senior driver, but the “other” driver at McLaren has taken a win before Norris. 

Italy 2021: Daniel Ricciardo wins the chaos race in Monza after Hamilton and Verstappen take each other out. Norris asks on the radio whether the team was happy to finish in this order. They were and therefore Norris finished second for the first time in F1.

The next race in Russia, Norris leads late in Sochi, on the verge of taking a first victory. The rain comes down heavily and Norris pits for intermediate tyres late, after several emotional discussions with his pitwall. Norris chose track position over a stop, eventually finishing seventh, sliding around as Hamilton takes his 100th win.

The start of 2023 was not great for McLaren, but as the season progressed, McLaren’s upgrades allowed them to push forward. In Qatar, Oscar Piastri took the sprint pole and the win. Yes, it was only a sprint, but the record will show that Piastri took a victory before Norris did.

And then there’s Norris’ other former teammate, who is out of a job in 2025. Carlos Sainz’s first year at McLaren saw him paired with Norris, meaning Carlando was born. Sainz went on to join Ferrari and has won at least one race in the last three seasons. While the Spanish driver is out of contract at the end of this year, the F1 spotlight is on him.

Despite all of this, this is not a complete disaster for Norris. And I think I can show this in two quotes. After Qatar 2023’s sprint, Norris watched Piastri win before him. He sounded distraught:

“I try to reset and refocus and not think of it, but it’s impossible for me to not think of it. Just frustrating because it’s just the shoulda, woulda, coulda stuff. Oscar’s done a better job than me this weekend and he deserves to be in the position he has done today. I’m starting where I deserve to be because I’ve just done a bad job.”

Here’s a man kicking himself at every possible opportunity, delighted that his team is doing well but gutted that he isn’t the one to deliver the best possible result. 

After the Shanghai race, Norris sounded a different tune, perhaps buoyed be the fact that he was the best of the rest, but perhaps happy at being the leading McLaren:

“And one day, I think it's coming [a race win]. I think this year, I'm not over confident in saying it, I think we can get a win this year but it's going to be difficult and we have a lot of work to do."

There’s one more wrinkle to work out, and that’s if Piastri wins a race before Norris does. I worry for Norris if this does happen, especially as non-Red Bull victories are rare, and are likely to be in the next few races.

But, as McLaren and Ferrari move into the second tier of the sport and host their own fight away from Mercedes and Aston Martin, Norris stands 20 points clear of his teammate, but both Leclerc and Sainz (and seven points from Oliver Bearman) being clear of McLaren’s pair means Norris and Piastri have got ground to make up, and the best and potentially only way to do that, is to work as a team. Incidentally, Piastri is on that list I mentioned earlier. He has two podiums without a race win yet.

Formula 1 moves to Miami for the first American race of the season, and the first one (for UK fans) at a sensible time on a Sunday evening in 2024. I had quite enjoyed the early morning/Saturday starts, as it gave me a whole day free on a Sunday. But, just like this edition of this blog (right?), and Norris’ first win, sometimes it’s worth the wait.

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