Lando Norris was given higher engine modes and told to attack, but McLaren did not expect him to do what he did on the final lap of the Austrian Grand Prix.
Norris’s stunning last lap, the fastest of the race and a full second quicker than he had gone before his late charge began, secured him third place and his first Formula 1 podium by just 0.2s as he hauled himself within five seconds of a penalised Lewis Hamilton.
It was so quick that McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl admitted afterwards: “To be honest, I didn’t expect that he could pull off that lap at the very end, but obviously he had a strategy in mind.
“That such a young guy is pulling off such a lap on the very last lap and ending on the podium, is just great.”
Even though Mercedes was nursing a gearbox issue there seemed little threat of Hamilton falling out of the top three, but that changed when his pace was limited behind race leader Valtteri Bottas.
With Mercedes not willing to risk swapping Bottas and Hamilton to allow Hamilton build a five-second gap to the cars behind in the final laps, the door was fractionally opened to someone else sneaking into third.
But Norris was not the driver with the chance to do so until less than three laps to go. Norris did not even know Hamilton had a penalty when he forced his way past Sergio Perez for fourth place at Turn 3.
He was only told Perez had his own five-second time penalty on the run up the hill, giving him a few seconds to evaluate “what risk I would take to try and get past him or whether I would hold position and just get the position freely through his penalty”.
Exiting Turn 8 Norris was given one final instruction, “give it everything, out of last corner as well, overtake” – and he launched into the final two turns, just about keeping within track limits
Norris decided to commit to attacking Perez because team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr was close behind and had been attacking Norris over the previous lap and a half when Norris had a series of lock-ups and “kind of fudged it up quite a bit”.
“I was fairly aggressive with my overtake but I had to be at that point,” he said.
But once clear of Perez, Norris was still around six seconds behind Hamilton and still oblivious to what was possible.
Then, as he started his penultimate lap, he was told: “Scenario 7, Yellow G2. Hamilton 6.5s ahead, he also has a five-second time penalty.”
This was the moment Norris’s stunning charge began, as he posted his fastest lap of the race – 1m07.781s, 0.6s quicker than his previous best – to cut the gap to Hamilton by seven tenths.
By this point McLaren was giving Norris every tool and instruction available to help his cause. He was told to “stay in Scenario 7 until Turn 3” because of Daniil Kvyat’s broken AlphaTauri causing a yellow flag at Turn 1.
On the exit of the first corner, Norris has single-press use of the overtake button, and the same again on exit of Turn 3 at the top of the hill.
It was the middle sector that truly shone, nearly 0.2s faster than anyone else managed all race, and he had the benefit of five seconds of the overtake button on the exit of Turn 8, which leads to the penultimate corner.
Exiting Turn 8 Norris was given one final instruction, “give it everything, out of last corner as well, overtake” – and he launched into the final two turns, just about keeping within track limits.
When he crossed the line Norris posted a 1m07.475s, the fastest lap of the race by nearly two tenths and 0.8s faster than Bottas. He clinched the podium place by 0.198s.
“Lando, gap to Hamilton was 4.8, 4.8,” his engineer Will Joseph said as Norris exited Turn 1 and the McLaren garage exploded in celebration.
“I think that’s a podium mate, I think that’s a podium!”
Norris screamed back: “Fuck yeah, boy! Fuck yes!”
It was the strongest confirmation yet that Norris has the speed and aggression to make a lasting impact in F1
The celebrations continued amid the usual post-race procedures between an out-of-breath and emotional Norris with his race engineer – who joked: “Are those tears?” – while new performance engineer Jose Manuel Lopez García had “VAMOS!” shouted to him for a podium on his first race since switching from Haas.
Once he’d returned from his first F1 podium, with a face mask soaked in champagne, Norris reflected on the tiny margins that got him to his milestone moment.
“We used the rest of our engine modes and obviously I pushed it a bit more in terms of track limits and using the kerbs,” he said.
“It’s quite harsh on the car and when you can, you don’t need to take the risks and you may be backing off a little bit but we didn’t really have any concerns so while I was told I could get on with it and really push it and I took the risks that I needed to.”
He added later: “I only did it by two tenths. One small lock up, one mistake that I could have made, or just our pace not being quite as good as it was, and I wouldn’t be here.”
It was the strongest confirmation yet that Norris has the speed and aggression to make a lasting impact in F1, even if there were errors that meant the race almost went away from him.
Fine lines are often the difference between glory and failure in F1, though, and Seidl had nothing but praise for his driver, the one McLaren is retaining for 2021 while Sainz heads to Ferrari.
“It’s all about the momentum and building up the confidence and Lando simply made a good job over the winter, digesting his first season as a rookie working hard together with engineers to make the right changes over this year,” said Seidl.
“In terms of personality, character, I think he made a step as well, which is normal for such young guys.
“I think he can have a great future.”