Chinese Grand Prix 2024: ‘Lando Norris’ performance confirms elevation to elite-level’

Home » Chinese Grand Prix 2024: ‘Lando Norris’ performance confirms elevation to elite-level’

Lando Norris confirmed his elevation into Formula 1’s elite with an exceptional drive to second place in the Chinese Grand Prix.

The winner was inevitable – Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was out of touch of everyone else as usual. But Norris was the class of the rest of the field in his McLaren.

It more than made up for his mistake at the start of the sprint race on Saturday, which threw away the advantage he had gained through an outstanding performance in qualifying to take sprint pole position by more than a second in the wet.

Norris tried to sit it out around the outside of the first corner with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes after the seven-time champion made a better start, but succeeded only in sliding off the track and down to seventh place.

Norris being Norris, he was still beating himself up about that – in a humorous way – even after holding off Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez to seal the runner-up spot in the main grand prix.

“I didn’t make a mistake in Turn One and go off,” he said, with a smile. “It’s a good start. And got past the Aston [Martin of Fernando Alonso] and then you can just control the race. And that was very different to yesterday.”

He added: “Whenever I finish behind Max, I feel like it’s a win. A great day, really a surprise, was not expecting a day like today. So very happy for myself and for the whole team, more importantly. Definitely exceeded our expectations but a lot of things went our way.”

This is Norris in a nutshell. He is not one to big himself up. His natural persona tends to look for the negatives, ways to improve.

So it was in keeping with that approach that he had bet his engineers that he would finish the grand prix 35 seconds behind the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, despite the Monegasque starting in seventh place, three places behind Norris.

“Happy to be wrong with myself,” Norris said afterwards.

Norris’ day turned on the two safety cars mid-race. Before that, he was in a battle with Leclerc for third place behind the two Red Bulls, and it looked as if Norris on a two-stop strategy would be chasing down Leclerc on one-stop in the closing laps.

Leclerc did not have the pace to catch Norris in the first stint on medium tyres, but he was doing a good job of looking after them and so Ferrari decided to extend to give them a shot at a podium.

But the timing of the caution periods forced Perez to make a second pit stop, and put Norris also on a one-stop. The Mexican dropped behind both Norris and Leclerc. What was impressive about Norris’ race from then on was that, after passing Leclerc within seven laps, Perez could not catch the McLaren. In fact, Norris was faster.

Again being modest, Norris put that down to Perez having probably overworked his tyres in passing Leclerc. But that would be to diminish his own achievement. This was a Red Bull, after all, a car that looks poised to challenge last year’s achievements, when the team and Verstappen produced the most dominant season in F1 history.

McLaren Formula E driver Sam Bird, working with Sport as co-commentator on 5 live, noticed that Norris had been employing clever driving to maximise his tyre life.

At the end of the long, long Turn One into Turn Two combination, Norris was slowing the car at the apex of Turn Two, and taking a much shallower, straighter exit, in contrast to the sweeping, wider normal line.

This might be slower through the middle of the corner, but it saves a lot of tyre energy. Over 50-odd laps, this sort of clever driving pays dividends, as Norris’ pace in the late part of the race demonstrated.

A step towards completeness

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella identified this as one of the steps Norris has made towards completeness from last year to this.

“In the race,” Stella said, “he seems to be become more and more consistent and more and more capable of understanding what is going on, what is going on with the tyres, which axle is going, how long can the tyres go.

“What we call the race-craft seems to be becoming larger and larger and more and more accurate.”

Stella said Norris and the team had worked hard over the winter on identifying weaknesses in his game last year – such as a propensity for making errors in qualifying – and tried to iron them out for 2024.

“What Lando had done this year,” Stella said after the race, “he has been able to capitalise on a lot of points and opportunities that we identified last year. For instance, one is qualifying performance: how do you put together clean laps in qualifying?

“Last year, he was quick but we have had several situations like in Qatar when he could have been on pole position but he had both laps in Q3 deleted. There was a lot to take from there and from other situations.

“So he has done a really good job on working on the opportunities together with his engineers and the support of the factory to make some small adaptations to be able top exploit the potential of the car to a greater extent. This is credit to him.”

The result is a driver becoming a complete performer, and everyone in the paddock now recognises him as being part of the elite group also featuring Verstappen, Hamilton, Alonso and Leclerc.

Norris was asked by Nico Rosberg on Sky television after the race whether he felt he was driving as well as anyone in F1 and whether a long-awaited win might be coming.

“I feel like it, but that’s F1,” he said. “Max is doing a good job, Red Bull are doing an amazing job. I can’t fault them and I can’t be too annoyed at that.

“I feel like I am getting a lot out of the car, especially on Sundays. So I have to be happy with the job I’m doing and one day, I think it’s coming. I am not overconfident in saying it. I think we can get a win this year. It is going to be difficult, we have a lot of work to do but we’re working hard.”

A win against Red Bull is going to require an upgrade to the McLaren car and some luck. A first significant upgrade is coming – at the next race in Miami – but the team do not expect it to make them winners on its own.

Stella said: “I have a lot of admiration for what Red Bull are achieving. Winning so consistently is not easy. There are so many reasons things can go wrong even if they make it look easy. Even if it looks ordinary, it’s not. We do look at how they do things. But my thoughts are, how do we get there?”

Stella pointed out accurately that McLaren have made more progress more than any other team over the last 12 months – but then after a weak start to last year, they had a lot of room for improvement.

He also said that they, like everyone else, were suffering from the major step forward Red Bull had made with this year’s car, after stopping developing last year’s dominant model early to focus on 2024.

“We lost some ground because we gained so much ground before while they were not developing,” Stella said. “That’s why we have to look at things over the long period and over that long period we are on a strong trajectory.

“If we keep this strong trajectory for the next 12 months, why not? We may reach Red Bull.”

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