McLaren Let Lando Norris Choose His Own Destiny at Sochi

·3 min read
Photo credit: Sergei Fadeichev - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sergei Fadeichev - Getty Images

Lando Norris was going to win this race. He built a huge lead on Lewis Hamilton over the first 30 laps, then defended well against Hamilton to keep him out of DRS range for the first five laps of a ten-lap run to the finish. Then, with Hamilton still a second and a half back, rain popped up. Both slid around the track, both got calls from their team to pit on the radio. Both passed the pit lane once without stopping. The next time by, Norris stayed out and Hamilton stopped. Hamilton came out 25 seconds back with three laps to go, but he won by nearly a minute. Norris struggled around the track as he sputtered to a seventh-place finish.

It was a catastrophe for McLaren's young lead driver, who has been one of the season's biggest stars after two successful but not particularly impressive seasons behind Carlos Sainz Jr. Here, the up-and-coming driver angling along with George Russell and Max Verstappen to succeed Hamilton as the face of the series had an excellent chance to beat that face in a memorable one-on-one battle and convert his first career pole into his first career win. Instead, he was given the chance to ignore his team's preference and became the architect of his own downfall.

In a post-race interview with Sky Sports F1, Norris seemed to start to blame the team for the call before shifting with every sentence and eventually accepting complete blame for the choice:

"I don’t know where to start. Obviously unhappy, devastated in a way. But I guess we made a call to stay out and we stand by that call. Of course it’s the wrong one at the end of the day, but I made the decision just as much as the team. In fact it was more they thought I should box and I decided to stay out. So it was a bit of just my decision. I thought it was the way to go."

McLaren's Andreas Seidl confirmed to Autosport that the team ultimately let Norris make the call and chose not to push the issue when he chose to stay out despite preferring to stop. It was a rare decisive single moment in a Formula 1 race for a driver that did not involve an on-track pass, the sort of moment that rewards experience in those situations and punishes hunger for a big result. The inexperienced Norris made the wrong choice, his team backed him up, and the veteran Hamilton was able to capitalize for the win.

Norris will have to bounce back from the mistake, but these sort of things happen to young drivers. The guy who beat him in the moment is not only a many-time winner, he is the winningest driver in series history. But Norris will need to brush his mistake off quickly and stay ready. The McLaren, suddenly, has been fast enough to win races at two tracks in a row.

With Spa canceled after just a few laps under the safety car, it is an incredible leap in performance for the entire team after the Summer break. Norris and his teammate Daniel Ricciardo will be considered contenders for wins through the end of the season. If Lando Norris can put this behind himself and get back to the form he showed in the dry all day today, he can still be a race winner before the end of the year.

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