This time last year, McLaren Formula 1 driver Lando Norris earned himself an early contract extension, and a year on, he is proving why that was the right decision.
In July last year, McLaren CEO Zak Brown announced that Norris would be retained for the 2020 season, after a stellar start to his rookie F1 season.
When making the announcement Brown stated that Norris was not making some of the mistakes “that you maybe anticipate from a rookie driver” and he wasn’t wrong.
Norris’ first season in F1 was strong, especially for a driver who was only 19 when the season begun.
He finished in the points more often than he didn’t and he also won the qualifying battle against his more experienced and now Ferrari-bound team-mate Carlos Sainz.
But this season, Norris has taken a clear step up in both his stature within the series as well as his performances on track.
Oddly enough, the season break caused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic helped Norris from a reputation perspective. His involvement in the Esports scene resonated with a huge audience and his personality shone through, winning him a number of new fans.
Throughout the pandemic break, the 20-year-old really put himself in the spotlight and not only did this pay dividends for both him and McLaren, but it also helped Formula 1’s profile.
But, when racing did get back underway, Norris demonstrated that he has worked hard over the winter and has taken his driving to a new level.
In Austria, he was instantly one of the fastest drivers on the circuit bar the two Mercedes drivers and put his McLaren fourth on the grid for the opening Grand Prix of the season.
It looked like Norris had simply out-performed his car on Saturday and that he would fall back down the order on race day, but he put together some great overtakes in the closing stages to clinch his first podium result of his F1 career.
It was a great start to the year, but the British driver is now proving that it wasn’t a one off.
Although he didn’t get quite the same result at the Styrian Grand Prix, he put together an incredible last few laps to pass Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez to finish fifth, and although he had a difficult Hungarian Grand Prix, there were still some positives to take.
Norris admitted that in Hungary he had the “worst start” of his Formula 1 career, but this self-critical response is why Norris will be a top line driver for years to come.
He knows he messed up, he put his hands straight up and publicly beat himself up about it. It is similar to traits shown by Charles Leclerc, and you can be sure Norris will have worked like mad to make sure it never happens again in the future. An attribute of a great driver.
Although he failed to finish in the points in Hungary, he still demonstrated his improved racecraft, putting together an incredible defence for two laps against Leclerc who, at that time in the race, was on much better tyres and had a faster car.
Leclerc made a great move to try and wing it around the outside of Norris at Turn 2, but Norris expertly placed his McLaren MCL35 to fend the Ferrari off for another lap.
He was unable to maintain Leclerc behind on his second attempt, after the Ferrari driver got a much better run down the start/finish straight, but it is evidence that Norris will no longer be intimidated by any driver on the grid.
It would be easy for Norris to dwell on a difficult weekend in Hungary, but his performance at Silverstone last weekend proved that it hadn’t affected his form any way.
In qualifying, he once again put together a sublime performance, putting in a 1m25.782s to wind up fifth on the grid. He was a full two tenths faster than his team-mate and a tenth faster than the Racing Point of Lance Stroll, who is driving what is supposedly a 2019 Mercedes.
In the race, he had a difficult opening lap, going wide at Brooklands, and this meant Sainz was able to pass him at Luffield.
Having lost momentum, Norris then conceded a further place to Daniel Ricciardo at the following corner, but rather than being flustered and losing further positions, Norris got his act together and when the opportunity arose after the second safety car restart, he hustled his way back past the Renault, going around the outside of him at Luffield.
He then put together a robust move on Romain Grosjean going into Stowe, passing the Haas at the first opportunity, despite the fact Grosjean had been putting together some borderline illegal defensive moves.
Norris got fortunate when Sainz suffered a puncture in the closing stages of the race, but fifth place was still a deserved result for the McLaren driver and if he can retain his current form for the remainder of the season, he will put himself firmly on the map as one of the absolute top talents on the grid.
He is out-performing his team-mate who also gave Max Verstappen a run for his money when they were team-mates at Toro Rosso, and he looks very much at home with a resurgent McLaren.
Based on Norris’ current form, it was a no-brainer to retain him for next season, and with Daniel Ricciardo joining McLaren next year, the Woking-based squad will have a formidable line-up.
Nobody knows what will happen later in the season, but it is clear to see why Brown got Norris to sign his contract extension so early last year, and boy, is Norris paying him back right now.