Bahrain Grand Prix: Lando Norris ready to take on Lewis Hamilton & Max Verstappen

Formula 1
Lando Norris

McLaren driver Lando Norris believes he is ready to go toe-to-toe with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the top of Formula 1.

The 22-year-old Briton heads into his fourth F1 season not sure where his team are in terms of competitiveness.

But he believes he has developed to a point where he has what it takes to win if the car is quick.

“I believe so,” Norris said. “Doesn’t mean I’d always come out on top, but definitely a few times.”

Norris is talking to BBC Sport in an unusually chilly Bahrain paddock on the eve of the first race of the season.

Hood pulled up against the cold desert wind, Norris admits he’s “a little bit nervous” as to where McLaren stand after front-brake cooling problems afflicted them in testing last week.

Lando Norris celebrates finishing second in Italy last year

But on a personal front he heads into 2022 in a confident frame of mind after a breakthrough season last year in which he established himself among the F1 elite.

Norris talks a lot about improving himself, about being “in a better position” in many aspects of his driving, taking “a big step forward last year”, especially with consistency – achieving his highest level as often as possible.

He’s a perfectionist, you see.

“I am. I always want it to be perfect,” he says. “With everything I do, I always need it to be done right and done properly and I won’t be happy until it’s done as close to perfection as possible.

“And secondly, various things with driving, adapting to different scenarios and being ready to drive outside my comfort zone and getting used to more different driving styles.”

Ask him if he will ever be satisfied, and he says: “Never. Maybe one day. I don’t know.”

He admits it is the lot of the high-achieving racing driver to be this way.

“You ask most drivers ‘will you ever be satisfied?’ and I think most would say no,” he says. “It is similar with all top athletes in different sports. They always believe there is a place they can do better.

“We always want to do that perfect lap. It’s almost impossible to ever do, but it is what we are searching and driving towards.

“Similar with golfers hitting a perfect shot or a perfect 18. They always want to do one thing perfect and then put it all together and that’s when it comes to a whole race weekend.

“You want to get to a point where everything’s subconscious. That’s when you really get in your element and in a zone where you can get out and drive normally, but your ‘normal and at ease’ is at a higher level than everyone else can do when they’re trying.

“Everyone has these moments when they go out and things just work, and you can just drive without thinking about it and they’re just very quick, and as soon as they went to improve something they do it and they’re even quicker.

“That’s what you see with top drivers and it doesn’t mean you don’t work. It’s the opposite – you work so much and you spend so much time trying to find perfection and gains that you understand everything in the back of your mind.

“In the back of your head everything’s swirling around, but in the front of your head you don’t have to think about what you’re doing. And that’s when things are going very well.”

Competing with the best requires more than achieving a perfect connection between driver and car, though.

F1 drivers share the track with 19 other competitive individuals. And at the front, the intensity is at another level.

Norris admits he’s not sure how he would deal with a rival who drives as aggressively as Verstappen did against Hamilton at times last year.

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen

“It’s a different battle because of how Max races,” Norris says. “It’s a different breed of drivers. You saw how he drove and changed when it came down to those final races, with aggression.

“It’s maybe something you don’t experience so much in the midfield because you’re not going for a World Championship, or some of the drivers don’t have that mentality of risking everything.”

Would Norris do that?

“It’s difficult,” he says. “You would try and play smart as much as you can. There are things you would definitely try and outsmart your team-mate on. But I’m also a fair racer and, I don’t know, maybe don’t push the limits quite as much in certain areas.”

Last year, Verstappen’s driving was at the centre of controversy as drivers sought clarity from race officials as to what was allowed in wheel-to-wheel racing after a number of incidents in which he seemed to push a rival off the track but did not always receive punishment.

Norris says the issue has been discussed between the drivers and governing body the FIA over the winter. The process is ongoing, he says, but there is only so much he can say because the meetings are private.

“There’s a big push towards having clarity,” Norris says. “Everyone’s talking about it. Between us as drivers we want clarity and consistency, and the FIA want the same. So there is quite a big push on that.”

Whether Norris has the car to compete at the front remains to be seen. And – like his friend and rival at Ferrari, Charles Leclerc – he picks Red Bull as pre-season favourites.

“I would go with Red Bull at the minute but Ferrari are definitely the closest after that,” Norris says. “They are downplaying themselves massively, as they would.

“But consistently in every single run they’ve done since the first lap in [the first test in] Barcelona, they’ve been basically at the top.

“It was just the final day [of testing last week] when Red Bull brought some new parts along they took a little step forward. But at the same time Ferrari could have just put a bit more fuel in and just not looked as good.”

Of McLaren and his own hopes, he says: “I’m confident. I’m ready for some good battles. I’m excited for what is to come this year. I am motivated to do better than last year. That’s the aim and time will tell whether that’s true or not.”

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