Lando Norris Is Coming in Hot
The day’s motoring begins with smoke. Lots of smoke, billowing across both lanes, the yellow headlights of other vehicles all that is visible through the cloud. The smell of burning permeates the crisp December air. There’s a sense that things have gone suddenly and drastically wrong. The drivers behind back off to give the car space, not entirely sure if it will come safely to a stop, or explode. The driver pulls in and confers with a mechanic. The cause of the plumes is undetermined; driver ineptitude is suspected.
It is not Lando Norris behind the wheel but me, on the M23 motorway, en route to meet him. “It’s just a sad feeling,” Norris says when I explain the reason I’m late. He lends a sympathetic ear. As one of the best Formula 1 drivers on the planet, he has suffered his share of car trouble. There was the time he overcame what he called “worst start of anyone’s career ever” at the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix (after starting 14th, he still bagged the race’s fastest time on the final lap), or the time he was caught flipping off his own car on live TV after a difficult corner during lap 35 of the Austrian Grand Prix.
Smoke, at least, is rare. “Generally, if it’s smoke, it’s something quite bad,” he says with a laugh. “If it’s on a race day, and through no fault of my own the engine lets go when everyone’s put so much work in… yeah, it’s such a big letdown to not be able to finish the race.” I’m embarrassed, but Norris is reassuring. “That’s part of racing,” he tells me. “It happens to every driver at some point. It’s happened to Lewis, it’s happened to Lando.”
Norris is being modest. He’s not “every driver,” but one of the fastest drivers alive—a fact that will see him take on the role of McLaren’s lead driver at the start of the 2023 season this weekend. It’s a significant milestone for Norris, who, over six years with McLaren, has served a comprehensive apprenticeship. “I was patient, but I always felt like I wanted to be ahead of where I was,” he admits of his time spent first as a bench warmer, then as second driver to Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo.
Not that it’s in Norris’s nature to complain. At least publicly, he presents his time spent absorbing everything F1 could throw at him as necessary preparation. “I’ve always hated to use ‘experience’ as an excuse,” he says. “I never wanted to say, ‘He beat me today because of experience.’ I dreaded that. But you can’t prepare for every single thing in the world in that first race, and you realize that with time that you do gain experience and you make fewer mistakes.”
We’re speaking at the McLaren Technology Centre outside of Woking, Surrey, a 50-hectare campus of gently curving glass and steel set among artificial lakes and frost-clad silver birches. Designed by British architect Norman Foster, it acts as the home base for all 800 McLaren employees, including the McLaren Racing staff. Every McLaren F1 car is assembled on site and tested in McLaren’s own wind tunnel. When Norris’s new contract with McLaren is up for renewal in 2025, it will have been his base for close to a decade.
I meet Lando’s publicist at a domed glass building a bit like a futuristic summerhouse, the entrance to McLaren’s OKX Thought Leadership Centre. I’m led underground through sweeping white tunnels that house some of the most famous cars in F1 history: there’s the 1974 M23, the first championship-winning McLaren. Next to it is the 1988 MP4/4, Ayrton Senna’s first championship-winning car, and statistically the most successful F1 car in history. Trophy cabinets with silver and gold cups, plates and assorted trinkets, line the walls. Norris bounds down the corridor. “I’d like to get one of those,” he says, pointing at a driver’s championship trophy. It’s an accolade firmly at the top of Norris’s to-do list; while he has claimed six podiums in Formula 1 as second driver, so far first place has eluded him.
The first thing that strikes you is just how handsome Norris is. Raised near Bristol to a British father and Belgian mother, he is tanned, with reassuring hazel eyes, a foam of dark brown hair brushed up from his forehead, and brows as striking as his jawline. Not that Norris, at 23, takes his good looks too seriously. “I don’t mind if people see me [as handsome] but I never think of myself like that,” he says, physically scrunching himself into the brown leather seat of the subterranean theatre where we’re speaking, which looks like where Batman might come to catch up on Now TV.
Norris is wearing a dark T-shirt, a navy sweater, trousers, and white K-Swiss sneakers: his uniform of choice when a hoodie isn’t available. Perhaps due to a lifetime of travel, his accent is oddly international, with an Oceanic compression to his vowels. His frame is slight (as required by his profession), and an assortment of beads and leather bangles adorn his wrist. On the seat between us sits an elegant but unshowy pair of Gentle Monster sunglasses. He’s quick to stress that his reliance on sunglasses isn’t a flex (Norris would hate you to think he’s angling for attention); their near-imperceptible tint helps to combat the headaches he suffers in bright light. Despite racing multi-million-pound cars at speeds in excess of 200mph for a living±perhaps one of the loudest flexes possible—he describes himself as quiet and “chill.”
His reputation for shyness is well noted, although McLaren CEO Zak Brown tells me Norris has started to come out of his shell. “I think we get the best out of him; he’s more talkative and engaged,” Brown says. “He’s able to let his hair down. It’s like family.” Like a good leader-in-waiting, Norris goes the extra mile to boost team morale, often helping the mechanics pack down post-race—this is after battling forces of up to 6Gs for a minimum of 90 minutes and losing (as Lewis Hamilton once estimated) up to 10 pounds per race.
This season, he’ll also serve as mentor to McLaren’s new second driver: the 21-year-old Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri. “It’s a new situation,” Norris observes, but explains that he doesn’t think taking charge will change his approach, except for the fact that he’ll be required to communicate with the team more while on the track.
Norris may prefer to let his driving speak for him, but as someone set to carry the future of his team on his shoulders—not to mention someone whose TikTok videos are seen by more than a million people—he’s long since accepted that public scrutiny is part of the job. There’s also the small matter of Formula 1: Drive To Survive, Netflix’s hugely popular F1 documentary, which is largely credited with expanding the sport’s audience. When season four debuted last March, Norris found himself thrust further into the spotlight over the course of episodes dealing with the 2021 World Championship, Daniel Ricciardo’s first season as McLaren’s first driver.
Much was made of the supposed rivalry between Norris and Ricciardo, and Norris’s apparent lack of sympathy when Ricciardo seemed to be struggling to adapt to his new car. There’s a scene in episode five when, after repeatedly outperforming Ricciardo, Norris finds himself behind his teammate and asks his crew to radio Ricciardo to hurry up; he’s driving too slow. In the same episode, the two argue over what exactly constitutes a crash. It’s hilarious and uncomfortable in equal measure.
Norris has spoken out about the series, arguing that creative editing was used to ramp up the tension. “Carlos [Sainz] and I get on extremely well. I kind of grew up with him,” he explains, referring to the Ferrari driver and his pre-Ricciardo McLaren teammate. “Daniel I got on with pretty well. He and I were the perfect competitors: we hated beating each other like we hated getting beat by one another.” (Ricciardo has also refuted rumors of bad blood, telling the British press that he felt no tension with Norris.)
“Away from the track we respected each other massively,” Norris says. “I keep it separate; I can be the biggest competitor I need to be on the race track, but I can also respect and be good mates with other people.”
Drive To Survive hasn’t hurt Norris’s image. On the contrary, he ended 2021 by being named the most popular driver among female and Gen Z fans, following a 187-country, 150,000-person F1 fan survey. “I love it, especially if it’s a fan-voted thing,” he says. “It’s just awesome to read, as a normal guy, that there’s so many people that support me.” He offers an embarrassed smile. “But it wouldn’t change the way I approach things or change who I am, or be a big ego-booster. I try not to think about it too much.”
“Daniel [Ricciardo] I got on with pretty well. He and I were the perfect competitors: we hated beating each other like we hated getting beat by one another.”
Part of Norris’s appeal seems to be that he really doesn’t think about it too much. Gone are the days of hard-partying bad-boy drivers like James Hunt. Today, Norris navigates fame by being unapologetically himself. Whether he’s streaming his golf rounds and Halo matches online (he has his own gaming company, Quadrant) or joking with fans in the paddock, he comes across like the kid your mom might entrust with making sure things don’t get out of hand at a sleepover. He is nice, and modest, if a occasionally sulky: in a 2020 Sky Sports video, he and Sainz answer questions while driving a McLaren 720S around a track. Norris admonishes Sainz for driving too fast, reminding him that “This is someone’s car!”
Despite the occasional huff, Brown praises Norris as a calm and detached driver, whether he’s waiting to make his debut as first driver or racing against his heroes. “When he first went up against Fernando Alonso it was like another day at the office,” Brown laughs. “I think that calmness and coolness is why he’s so consistent.”
It’s because of this coolness that things like Norris giving his car the middle finger or arguing a front-end bump isn’t a crash are so endearing. They aren’t temper tantrums so much as very slight—and human—displays of exasperation. But even Lando Norris has his faults. “What frustrates me about Lando?” Brown muses. “He’s been five minutes late more than once. If we’re supposed to leave at 8.00, it might be 8.07. The great thing about him is he is very honest and owns everything. And he’s definitely improved.”
It’s impossible to climb to pole position without dedicating some serious years to racing. Even so, Norris took a circular route to the top. Growing up in Yeovil, he first tried horseback riding, which quickly morphed into quad biking and then, like his idol Valentino Rossi, Moto GP. It wasn’t until his father took him to watch the British Kart Championships at the age of seven that Norris first considered a career in racing on four wheels. He quickly dedicated himself to the sport, becoming the youngest-ever World Karting Champion at 14. “I’m a competitive guy, so if I can beat other drivers in whatever it is, that’s just an added bonus,” Norris shrugs. He left school at 16 without taking his exams to focus on racing. He soon made the leap to Formula 3, then Formula 2—and he kept winning.
“He had pretty much won everything he’d ever sat in at a very young age, and in his first time doing it,” Brown explains of his decision to sign Norris to McLaren in 2017. “All of that means he’s an extremely special talent.”
When Norris debuted on the track as back-up to Carlos Sainz at the Australian Grand Prix in 2019, at the age of 19, he did so as Britain’s youngest-ever F1 driver. He claimed his first podium the following year, coming third at the Austrian Grand Prix. In 2021 he won his best result to date, second place behind Ricciardo at Monza. It was his most triumphant season so far, and culminated in his being named the Autosport Awards British Competition Driver of the Year 2021. Although he finished 7th in the 2022 season, ESPN ranks Norris as the second-best driver in the world, behind Max Verstappen, noting his consistency and his position as the only driver outside of the top three teams to bag a podium.
Brown puts Norris’s success down to natural talent and hard work, but diligence undoubtedly plays a role. Norris has the energy and enthusiasm of someone eager to hone their craft. He used to live “like three minutes away” from the McLaren base, but now resides in Monaco, flying in and out nearly every week during the season. Around races he’ll spend time in the simulator and join meetings to discuss car development, or how he can improve himself as a driver. He may have signed a multi-year contract to race as McLaren’s number one, but his position is dependent on his ability to win races. Norris knows this. “I love to listen,” he explains. “It might not be something I’m necessarily giving input on, but because I love racing, the more I can know about, that’s a good thing. I’m a perfectionist. I try as hard as I can to be a better driver.”
This hunger for knowledge has given Norris a technical edge. “He knows how to get the best out of a race car and put the car to its limits,” Brown explains. “He’s also able to very articulately convey what that car is doing, because he has such a good feel for it. His technical feedback is excellent.”
“I think I’m a fair loser, but I’ve always been a guy who’s very harsh on myself. I’m very critical of my own performance,” Norris explains. “I always think, What could I have done better? And then, What could the team have done better?”
It’s one thing for a driver to be harsh on themselves, but another thing entirely to deal with backlash from toxic F1 fans. Norris’s relationship with Portuguese model Luisinha Oliveira ended in September, and he has spoken about them both receiving death threats online. Before that, in October 2021, he appeared on ITV show This Morning to talk about the immense pressure of being a famous sportsperson. “I didn’t need to do that,” Norris says defensively. “It was a choice [to speak about mental health], because I struggled quite a bit with it in 2019 and 2020.”
That pressure, from fans and the media, was new to Norris—at least in its intensity. “I just didn’t know how to deal with it,” he explains. “I kept all of it inside and it really hurt my self-belief and self-confidence, which got to an all-time low. I doubted myself: Am I good enough to be in Formula 1? Can I come back from this?”
His manager put him in touch with a mental health coach, but Norris still deals with online negativity. He says he has learned how to stay away from social media and deal with negative feelings, and seems to be in a much better place. “You’re never going to please everyone,” he rationalises. “There are people that support you and people that don’t… I know I’m doing the best I can.”
“A few people said that I had saved their life. That hits you pretty hard.”
Speaking out about mental health led to what Norris calls some of the most uplifting moments of his career: seeing fans share their own struggles. “A few people said that I had saved their life,” Norris says, his voice wavering. “That hits you pretty hard.”
Away from the track, Norris’s two central hobbies, golf and photography, provide static counter-balances to his high-octane day job. Like racing, success in both resides in the details. Far from distractions, Norris sees his hobbies as a way to enrich his very limited time off, something to help him “still enjoy a bit of my life away from a racetrack.”
“We have a ton of fun, just ribbing each other the entire time,” Brown says of his golfing exploits with Norris. “He’s a good golfer, when he hits it straight,” he laughs. “You can see the talent is there, but he’s only in his second season. He’s rapidly getting quicker and better with his hand-eye coordination… [he’ll] be a proper golfer in not too long.”
McLaren has a long and winning history (183 total race wins, 12 Drivers’ Championships and 8 Constructors’ Championships, to be precise). Many of the best drivers in history have raced for them: Lauda, Senna, Häkkinen, Coulthard, Button, Hamilton. However, among fans, there is the belief that McLaren has lost some of that magic. Having not won a WWC title (ie won an entire season) since 1998, and coming 4th and 5th in 2021 and 2022, McLaren has recently been positioned as “the best of the rest” behind Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes.
Fans believe Norris has every chance of bringing McLaren a title, if only he is given the machinery to back him up. A few days after our conversation, Norris makes headlines when he claims that his 2022 McLaren MCL36 is the “furthest away from what [he wants]” in a race car, indicating a preference for speed over comfort. Brown is aware of the issues, but is adamant that once Norris has the right set of wheels, he will go all the way. “I think he’s got another ten to 15 years ahead of him,” Brown tells me. “I think as long as we can get him a car, he’ll be a world champion.”
It’s redundant to state that Norris wants to become the best driver in the world—no one dedicates their life to what is probably the most dangerous sport in the world to continue coming second. Yet Norris is surprisingly candid in admitting that while he thinks he has a good chance of winning a race this year, his best chance at a championship win won’t come until 2024, or, more likely, 2025. “With everything I’ve learned, maybe I could win a race, but I’m unlikely to win a championship until possibly that time,” he says. “I know I need to be at the absolute top of my game in those years.” Machinery aside, all that really needs to happen for Norris to succeed is for him to stay the course.
“He takes the things that he needs to take seriously, very seriously,” Brown explains. “But he also knows that we’re in a fun business, racing cars.”
This might not be Norris’s season. It might not even be next season. But he’s confident that losses—like breakdowns—are just part of learning. The key thing is to get back behind the wheel and keep going. “I hate losing,” Norris says. “But losing gives me the drive to figure it out and do a better job next time.”
This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “Lando Norris is coming in hot”
Photographs by Thomas Chéné
Styled by Itunu Oke
Styling assistant Melissa Ewing
Grooming by Paul Donovan
The racing world's most electrifying champ talks with rare candor about his ruthless rise to the top, the public misconceptions of his upbringing, and taking inspiration from Michael Jordan.
After the Australian *Drive to Survive* star fell out of love with F1, he came back stronger—and more popular—than ever.
Originally Appeared on GQ