Analysis: The cautionary subplot to Norris’ F1 promotion


Monza, Italy. Friday 31 August 2018. Lando Norris, McLaren, with Tom Stallard, Engineer, McLaren, and Zak Brown, Executive Director, McLaren Technology Group.
Credit: Steven Tee/McLaren

It was not long ago that Stoffel Vandoorne had the world at his feet. He’d crushed a talented field of opposition en-route to the 2015 GP2 title. He moved to Monaco. He was the marketable, good-looking successor to Jenson Button with an impeccable junior CV and the subject of persistent headhunting from rival teams like Renault. Having struggled to extract the best from Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen, the hotshot young Belgian at last looked to be McLaren‘s best chance of finding another Lewis Hamilton.

However, last week Vandoorne became the latest victim of McLaren’s inexplicably appalling record with young drivers as the team announced that the Belgian will call time on his largely abysmal stint with the Woking-based squad. Like former McLaren exiles Heikki Kovalainen, Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel failed to make any concerted impression on the dominance of his formidable team-mate and produced very few memorable performances contrary to his immense junior series results. However, Vandoorne’s situation was further compounded with the woeful unreliability McLaren has suffered from both Honda and Renault power units.

Incredibly for a man who won on debut in both Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2, the Belgian’s F1 career now hinges on an unlikely reprieve from Toro Rosso; one of the teams that had previously been so keen to pinch him from McLaren. In all likelihood Vandoorne must now be looking to reconcile himself with a future away from F1: a remarkable turnaround for a former golden boy among the paddock’s talent spotters.

In Vandoorne’s stead, McLaren now welcomes a driver who finds himself in a remarkably similar situation to Stoffel’s lofty 2015-16 heights. Lando Norris has been nothing less than a junior series sensation, even surpassing Vandoorne’s record on the lower rungs of the single-seater ladder, having collected an unprecedented five titles from three full seasons of car racing. Like Stoffel, Lando has had the benefit of extensive test mileage, has been relentlessly pursued by rival teams, and will arrive in F1 with an already well-established foundation of notoriety.

However, once the fanfare from McLaren’s 18-year-old new signing subsides, and once journalists stop making tedious comparisons to 2007, Norris would be well-advised to reflect on the demise of his predecessor. Indeed, despite having secured the contract to replace the most winning GP2 driver in history, Norris’ Formula 2 season has ironically been the most ambivalent year of his otherwise outstanding career. Whilst the young Brit moved the goalposts of excellence throughout his Formula Renault and Formula 3 campaigns, he has struggled to fully replicate the same impeccable form in F2 machinery.

FIA Formula 2 Series - Round 10. Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, Monza, Italy. Saturday 1 September 2018.Lando Norris (GBR, Carlin).
Credit: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

He might have collected a dominant win on debut in Bahrain and remains George Russell’s most likely title challenger, but Lando has often come up short against more experienced, combative wheel-to-wheel racers and has also suffered the usual Pirelli-related vexations. Compared with Jack Aitken’s meteoric drive to second, Norris produced a lethargic recovery drive after both he and Aitken stalled on the grid in Baku. Norris would also burn out his tyres trying to follow Russell’s decisive progress in the Austrian sprint race. Despite astonishing wet weather pace, tyre woes would strike again in Hungary as Lando squandered the twelve-second lead he’d built up; eventually ceding the lead to fellow McLaren junior Nyck de Vries.

In Hungary, Norris did not look like an F1 driver in-waiting and has also struggled to match the pace of Carlin Racing team-mate Sergio Sette Camara in recent races. McLaren’s faith in Norris’ abilities is a testament therefore to the impression Lando has made in his test outings and in the simulator. The decision to parachute the 18-year-old into a team in the midst of McLaren’s technical malaise might seem misguided, but Norris’ silent and most decisive advocate must surely have been his data overlays.

McLaren has an established history of data-driven driver decisions: a strong showing from Magnussen at the 2013 Silverstone Young Driver Test resulted in Sergio Perez’s dismissal. Albeit on a softer compound of tyre, Norris famously caused consternation when he eclipsed Fernando Alonso’s best qualifying lap from last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix on his debut F1 outing in the post-race test. Having been nominated for every testing opportunity thereafter, Norris also produced outwardly impressive showings during his recent FP1 outings in Spa and Monza. Therein, Lando‘s F1 contract has almost certainly comes on the back of some pretty favourable comparisons with the incumbent race drivers.

And yet, ironically this appears to be one of the few occasions where McLaren has allowed cold, hard performance to play second fiddle to something equally tangible. It has since transpired that Norris’ contract with McLaren was set to expire midway through September, with Red Bull hoping to promptly poach the Brit and parachute him into its gaping Toro Rosso vacuum. Norris had been linked to Red Bull’s junior outfit ever since it emerged that the team had offered him a chance to replace Brendon Hartley ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.

With a guaranteed midfield seat on the table plus the genuine prospect of career progression via the Red Bull top squad, McLaren’s only means of keeping hold of its immensely talented young protege was to promote him to a race seat for 2019. In this context, Vandoorne’s dismissal appears more palatable. Indeed, McLaren CEO Zak Brown went on to recommend that Toro Rosso signs a man he describes as “an outstanding race car driver” and one that could excel in a “different environment“. It is starkly apparent from these remarks that McLaren feels it didn’t extract Vandoorne’s full potential, something that won’t exactly be confidence inspiring for the driver set to take his place.

Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary. Sunday 29 July 2018. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, on the grid.
Credit: Glenn Dunbar/McLaren

Of course, there is no particular reason to expect Lando Norris to struggle in 2019. Apart from vague and superficial whispers about regimented procedures and an overemphasis on simulator data, there has never been any detailed causal explanations attributed to any of McLaren’s recent young driver calamities, and each is in all likelihood underpinned by entirely different circumstances. Vandoorne, for instance, excelled during a one-off cameo in Bahrain in 2016, scoring McLaren first point of the season, but outwardly never clicked with last year’s MCL32. Perhaps the Belgian’s driving style never gelled with the new aerodynamic regulations introduced ahead of the 2017 season.

As it stands, McLaren’s young driver curse is either unexplained or nonexistent. Intrepidly embarking on an F1 career on the back of a sparkling junior career, Lando Norris represents a final litmus test of Woking’s young driver toils. Albeit at the tender age of 18, Lando has the look of a driver with the skill and racing intelligence to make it in the sink-or-swim world of F1 and McLaren has all the resources to help him maximize his potential. The cautionary tale of Stoffel Vandoorne will quickly be quickly wheeled out by the paddock’s journalists should Norris’ rookie season falter at any stage, however the desire to usher in a new A-list member of the British racing cast list will surely be the main strapline of Lando’s F1 arrival.