“I don’t race any of the guys in the top three teams, they just pass us and go, and they lap us.”
British Formula 1 star Lando Norris’ debut season wasn’t always a smooth one in 2019, but he is determined to be the shining light for McLaren as they seek to regain their place among the elite this time around.
The Woking-based F1 team struggled in the latter half of the 10s, but with Norris at the helm alongside the experienced Carlos Sainz Jr, they enjoyed excellent progress in 2019 and the 20-year-old British driver is confident 2020 will bring a ‘step forward’ as they look to reconnect with the teams at the top.
Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com at the premiere of Netflix documentary series Formula 1: Drive to Survive Season 2, Norris discussed his lofty aims, McLaren’s resurgence and his pride at being the man tasked with taking the iconic brand back to the summit of motor racing.
Norris reflects on the lack of competitiveness against the top teams in 2019 with an element of frustration, but that is the end goal of a mission he is only just being, and he remains optimistic of closing the gap in the near future.
He said: “I raced [Hamilton] once all season. The only time was in Austria where I managed to go around the outside of him or in Turn 1 off the line.
“That was cool but I don’t race Max [Verstappen], I don’t race any of the guys in the top three teams.
“That’s six drivers you don’t get to race with and go wheel-to-wheel.
“All the others you learn how they work and what they do, but six of the best drivers in Formula 1, you don’t get the chance to fight with them, have battles, have fun and enjoy more of that.”
McLaren finished ninth in the constructor standings twice in three seasons prior to 2018 which prompted an engine swap from Honda to Renault, a move that is bearing shoots of optimism for the team.
In 2019, McLaren exceeded expectations with 145 points to cut away from the bottom pack and steadily begin to close the gap on Ferrari and Red Bull who themselves are chomping at the heels of all-conquering Mercedes.
The 20-year-old star is confident that McLaren will draw closer to the top in the upcoming season, but that it may require the new 2021 regulations to inspire the drastic changes required to truly make a mark.
He said: “This year will be a step forward, for sure. The car’s looking better but you don’t know how the other teams are doing.
“It will still be a couple of years if we continue how we are now before we are confident of saying we can start bringing the fight to the top teams.
“There’s no team that goes from nothing to something especially when there’s no regulation changes, there’s only a couple of things here and there so it’s hard for a team to suddenly surprise and be all magical.
“I think next year is our best opportunity to make something new. That’s the biggest chance for everyone, not just for us. The whole regulation change, everything is completely new, Mercedes are coming on with us.
“It’s our best opportunity to make the most of a new start for everyone.”
Many drivers on the grid absorbed the masterful Michael Schumacher at the peak of his powers during their childhood – of course Kimi Raikkonen even raced the man – though 1999-born Norris is a child of the Hamilton generation.
He grew up an avid McLaren fan and is pinching himself that he is now the chosen one charged with spearheading the team.
Norris said: “I’m very proud. I just think back to when I was younger, watching the TV, watching Lewis [Hamilton] and Fernando [Alonso] in McLaren and just thinking how cool it was watching McLaren and supporting them.
“Time-travelling back to now and I’m in that situation, not just driving the car, trying to help improve the atmosphere in the team and be part of something to make them grow and be better again after the years of struggle.
“It’s not like I’ve just come in and we’re winning and so on, it’s made it a bit more of a journey and a story and if we can continue this over the next few years and get even better, that makes it more special.
“I’m proud, seeing myself as a little kid 15 years ago and now being that person is insane but also amazing to think of.”
Tenuous comparisons are drawn between Norris and Hamilton based on their McLaren ties and matching burgundy passports, but Norris is very much his own driver with his own mission: to restore McLaren’s status at the top of the game.
He humbly credits the team’s improvement not solely down to his own actions in the cockpit but to an improved atmosphere, togetherness, even an ‘us against the world’ style atmosphere shift throughout the whole team at McLaren.
“It’s not as simple as making a better car and making things look bigger on the car, it’s very complicated and a lot of it comes from the atmosphere within the team and how hard everyone is working together,” he said.
“There are so many parts to a Formula 1 car and there are so many different groups of people that work on different areas, so the better you get people integrated and working as one whole team, the better everything is going to end up.
“That’s been a big part of how everything has changed with people coming and going. There’s more structure, but mainly the atmosphere in the team has improved a lot and has been a big part of our improvement.”
There will be plenty of interest in Norris this week as he returns to the track in McLaren’s brand new MCL35 car during F1 testing.
With McLaren taking up residence in the ‘best of the rest’ slot ahead of 2020, the spotlight will be fixed on Norris as he aims to restore his side to ‘best of the best’.
Watch Formula 1: Drive to Survive Season 2 from Friday 28th February on Netflix