Lando Norris heads into the 2017 FIA European Formula 3 Championship as one of the favourites for both the rookie and overall crown, and speaking to The Checkered Flag, the Briton knows the pressure is firmly on his shoulders after a sparkling beginning to his career.
Norris had a great 2016, winning both the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup and NEC titles on the back of triumphing in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, with the year capped off by winning the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award and by joining the McLaren Formula 1 Team’s young driver programme.
“I won all the championships I set out to win,” said Norris to The Checkered Flag. “I managed to win Eurocup & NEC, TRS and the final one, the McLaren Autosport award, and did a few races in BRDC F3 where I managed to win a few races as well in that.”
Norris revealed that Carlin was the best choice for him this season, despite interest from Prema Powerteam, the outfit that have taken Daniel Juncadella, Raffaele Marciello, Esteban Ocon, Felix Rosenqvist and Lance Stroll to consecutive titles.
The Briton feels at home with the team, and although he knows Prema will have the early advantage, Carlin should come back fighting harder during the season.
“I obviously have a good history with them, starting off in F4,” said Norris. “They were the first proper team I settled down with and tried to take the championship with, so within the past two years, as well as doing BRDC F3 races last year.
“I went to the workshop quite a bit, it’s not too far away from where I live, I know everyone there, we all get on very well, and I’m able to work really well with the engineers that I have.
“I think not joining Prema was the hard option, as they’ve been very dominant in the past four years, the best team apart from that [was Carlin], we thought after our performances in the last two races of the year, Hockenheim and Macau, we did think it was a good choice to go with them.
“We know that we’re probably not going to be the strongest to start the season off, mainly car wise, but the two team-mates I have, and everyone within the team and around the team, I think we’re able to push the car and everything forward quite a bit, and hopefully pretty quickly get on par with Prema and hopefully ahead.”
Norris admits that Prema will be hard to beat, with the Italian outfit being the standout team ever since the FIA Formula 3 Championship was reformed in 2012, but believes that he should be able to fight them on track during the season, especially at tracks where he has previous knowledge.
“It will be tough, especially with [Callum] Ilott, [Mick] Schumacher and [Maximilian] Günther in the team,” said Norris. “Günther has done it the past two years and finished second last year so he’s the obvious favourite for the championship.
“Ilott, who was very fast in Macau, had some great results throughout last year, and it will definitely be hard to beat them. But I believe I should be at a level where I am able to compete against them pretty quickly.
“Early on in the season, they will have the advantage, at some tracks like Pau I’ve never been to before. We can’t go and test there so it’s definitely not going to be the easiest thing to go up in the championship and try to beat them on my first time there. It’s definitely going to be tough, but I believe.”
Norris enjoyed a great rivalry last season with another up-and-coming star in Max Defourny, and he admitted that the Belgian was usually provided the benchmark that he had to beat in Formula Renault 2.0.
“He was very fast, throughout the whole season, and quite often he was the benchmark in a lot of the practice sessions and in a lot of the racing,” said Norris. “He was definitely not the easiest guy to beat and when he was fast, he was really fast.
“[During] season testing, everything was going really well. Possibly going into the very first race at Motorland, obviously it was my first race in Renault, He did, I think he did the NEC championship [the year before], but having just that little bit of experience going into it [helped him].
“What was difficult it was on the same weekend as Formula V8 3.5, and they were on Michelins as well, and the track changed quite a bit, and I’d never been out on track in those kind of conditions with that much rubber, so it was pretty different.
“I had to adapt my driving quite a bit, and I think with doing it the previous year, he had a bit more experience in knowing what to do when that rubber went down.
“[However,] it was pretty much the best weekend of the year, I don’t think I won two races in a weekend again, obviously there was a lot of points in the year where we came very close to racing a lot.”
One of the standout battles between the two was at the Red Bull Ring, where the duo diced for the lead lap after lap, with Norris coming out on top, with the Briton feeling it was the best battle he had with Defourny all year.
“I think the best race was the Red Bull Ring where I was pole, and I managed at least a four second gap within the first three laps,” said Norris. “But our race pace was pretty horrendous, for some reason.
“He managed to catch me very quickly, I knew at that point he was second in the championship, so he was my main contender, the guy I had to beat, then we had a big battle on our hands.
“My final move I did on him, at turn four, the fast left-hander, I did him three times at that corner, the first two I managed to go on the inside, but then the final one, I knew if he had a gap, he would have just pulled away and easily won, and I would have dropped back. I knew I had to keep overtaking him and trying to stay ahead.
“It was the penultimate lap of the race, and we went round that lefthander again, I was like, ‘if I don’t do him now, he’s just going to pull away, so I’ll have to do him’. And there wasn’t much of a gap, but at the final moment he just left the door open, not even a full car width,
“So when I went up the inside, [with] my two wheels on the grass, of course I’ve hit that, lost a bit of grip, then slid, almost oversteered into him, he luckily was just able to see me and just about turn out a bit, and that was pretty much my riskiest move of the year to be honest. Obviously it paid off, and went onto to win the championship.”
After four titles in two years, Norris knows that there is a lot more interest in his driving heading into 2017, especially as he is now part of the McLaren Formula 1 Team’s young driver programme, with expectations from outsiders making him the championship favourite heading into the new year.
However, the teenager remains focused on the job in hand, and is not going to let the pressure get to him, instead waiting to see where he is when the racing gets going.
“There is a bit more pressure than there has been in previous years, especially with having such a good year last year,” admitted Norris. “I managed to win all of it, but the expectations are for me to go in and do very well this year.
“Therefore that turns into having a bit more pressure but I don’t think its different to what it has been in previous years, I feel pretty confident going into the year, but until the first race comes, I guess we’re going to have to wait and see.”
Norris believes that he needs to start the season off well and not to lose too many points early on. He knows wins may be out of the equation at the start of the year, but as long as he remains quick and consistent, he should be able to bridge the points gap when he gets really into his groove.
“We need to start off in the best way possible,” said Norris. “I think consistency throughout the year will be a factor, so it doesn’t have to be the race wins, although that is always what I want to go for.
“It can be top three, top two, sometimes top five if it needs to be. But you need to start it off pretty well, I don’t want to be having a bad first weekend and then catching up, that’s where I’ve done pretty well in the past is that I’ve started off well, like in Renault, and I’ve been able to control it.
“I’ve been able to lose points but then I’ve gone to a track and then extended it. I don’t want to be playing catch up, I want to be the guy who’s at the front.
“I think it’s hard to know exactly what it’s going to be like until the first race, the first qualifying when we really see the pace of the other teams and cars, and of us, and that’s the first time we see what everyone’s pace is like compared to each other, until then its hard to know, but I’m feeling pretty confident we can start off in a good way.”