Lando Norris’s tacit admission he does not want to go up against Max Verstappen as Red Bull Formula 1 team-mates was honest, rational and, in the eyes of his critics, woefully unambitious.
His comments are an easy stick to beat him with. However those doing just that seem to have completely missed the point.
This is Norris’s answer in full to a question from Sky Sports F1 about whether he feared racing alongside Verstappen in the same team: “It's a longer discussion than just saying that. Is Max one of the best drivers ever in F1? Absolutely. He's proved that enough. He's in a team which he's very comfortable in. A lot of things are built up around him.
“So, for anyone, even for a Max of a few years ago, to go in against the Max of now is extremely difficult.
“I don't think it's a question of 'are you scared or not scared?'. I don't think I'd ever be scared of going against anyone.
“Even if you enter a team, are you in a position to challenge someone straight away and are you comfortable to do that? It's a no for any driver. It takes time to adapt and takes time to get into place.
“And if you want to go against the best driver in the world, it's not the best thing to do, it's not the smart move to do.”
"If you want to go against the best driver in the world, it's not the best thing to do" ❌— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) January 27, 2024
Lando Norris says it wouldn't have been a 'smart move' to join Max Verstappen at Red Bull ⬇ pic.twitter.com/XQxBVTmS3Z
The last line in particular has been used to criticise or mock Norris as cowardly and lacking a winning mentality. Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, George Russell are all examples given of drivers who had no problem walking into a team alongside a superstar team-mate.
It’s much easier to take a binary view of things than think as three-dimensionally as with the answer Norris gave. The criticism and the comparisons are not just oversimplistic but also quite conveniently disregard context - not only for Norris's situation, but for the drivers cited.
Norris is not scared of racing Verstappen, he just wants the best chance of beating him. Norris believes he could, eventually, beat Verstappen in the same team. But he knows it could be harder than beating him as a rival. And while it would be great fun for us to see them as team-mates, Norris isn’t about to make career-defining decisions based on what we want. He needs to do what’s best for him.
Stepping straight into Verstappen’s environment - where Verstappen is a triple world champion, where he has driven for that specific team since 2016 and has been the prodigal son of that organisation since 2014 - is a very daunting and specific challenge.
Norris knows he would be against a driver at the very top of his game, who can extract every last tenth of performance out of his car and team, and who has everyone in that organisation pulling in his direction.
These are all utterly vital nuances that will determine whether a driver gets 100% out of their machinery, something that Verstappen is very good at. It’s why he didn’t just beat team-mate Sergio Perez in 2023, he obliterated him.
Verstappen sets a fierce benchmark that’s tough to match - and Norris may well doubt he’d ever really get a fair chance to try. There is always the element of perceived favouritism towards Verstappen to consider, even if Norris could count on the same equipment.
Ultimately, Daniel Ricciardo walked away from Red Bull first time around because he doubted he could achieve what he wanted in a team gravitating towards Verstappen. Alex Albon has admitted that the team builds a car that Verstappen wants/likes/can handle and it's up to his team-mate, whoever it is, to deal with that.
Norris is not going to dismantle such an environment immediately, if ever, so beating Verstappen would not be a short-term task.
The associated risks outweigh the potential rewards, especially when Red Bull’s competitive prospects cannot be taken for granted. We are talking about what could hypothetically have been a Red Bull seat in 2026, when it will race with its first self-built engine for the first time.
It’s far from guaranteed that Red Bull Powertrains will be the benchmark engine that the Honda has arguably become. Imagine trading in what Norris believes is possible at McLaren to be second fiddle to Verstappen when Red Bull could revisit its early hybrid era wilderness.
Details are everything. That’s also why the comparison to Hamilton's 2007 against Fernando Alonso at McLaren, or Leclerc going up against Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, or Russell going up against Hamilton at Mercedes, is an argument that falls down against the slightest scrutiny.
Hamilton was a rookie when he was offered that McLaren drive in 2007. Yes, going up against Alonso – the double world champion – was an immense undertaking, and to have the confidence to take it on and then do the job that Hamilton did in 2007 in an unprecedented rookie campaign was nothing short of extraordinary.
At the same time you have to accept that Hamilton was a rookie so was not about to reject the chance to get into F1 with a team capable of fighting for the world championship. And Alonso was an incoming driver, not someone who had McLaren wrapped around his finger. It means it was simply a different set of circumstances to a hypothetical Red Bull move for Norris, and it’s blinkered to pretend otherwise.
It was similar for Albon going against Verstappen at Red Bull: he knew half a season into his F1 career, having never driven an F1 car before pre-season testing, meant his Red Bull chance was coming way too early. He wasn’t ready. But he couldn’t say no. He had no F1 prospects barely six months prior to that, so turning down a race-winning car was not an option.
While Leclerc and Russell got their big breaks in slightly different fashion, they still don’t compare to where Norris is now. Leclerc spent one season at Sauber performing heroics in a midfield car. Stepping up into Vettel’s Ferrari – the team Leclerc had dreamed of racing for since three years old – was a no-brainer.
The same went for George Russell, going from Williams to Mercedes - even against Hamilton, it was the chance Russell had been waiting three years for.
And truth be told he probably thought Hamilton would not stick around as long as he ultimately has.
The point is that the comparisons drawn are so different to Norris being in his sixth season at McLaren, a team that has given him multiple podium finishes, looks to be on a trajectory for even better things in the medium-term, and is where he knows emphatically he does not have to fear preferential treatment for his team-mate.
Norris believes that where he is now is where he can get the best out of himself, while lining everything else up to fight for a world championship.
And if he gets into that scenario, Norris believes he is ready to take on the likes of Verstappen and Hamilton in a straight fight.
There is nothing unambitious about that.