McLaren knows that Lando Norris is a prime target for its Formula 1 rivals. And without a crucial transformation, McLaren would have handed its prize asset to them on a silver platter.
Norris remains under contract until the end of 2025 but his patience and McLaren’s resolve in forcing him to stay would have been intensely tested had a horrible start to this season continued.
No exit clauses exist but there’s always a way to end a contract if one or both parties want that to happen. And if you look back beyond the transformative upgrades that turned McLaren and Norris into regular podium contenders and occasional Red Bull irritators, you are reminded of exactly the kind of performance that would drive an impatient, hungry young driver to the exit door.
Norris was knocked out in Q1 or Q2 four times in the first eight races and scored points in just three of them, as McLaren slipped far behind the leading midfield teams – let alone the frontrunners.
“If we would have continued on the path that we were on at the start of the year - I wouldn't have wanted to drive here,” McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown jokes.
Norris put a brave face on things early in 2023. He admitted he was impatient, frustrated even, but insisted his confidence and faith was not shaken. He could see the work being done in the background – not just on the big, longer-term projects like the new windtunnel and simulator that were finally about to be used, but better and more fruitful development coming from the same people and the same tools, just under different leadership.
It might look foolish to suggest McLaren could have really lost him, then. Surely he was just gritting his teeth through the bad times? But there was no guarantee he would be rewarded and, after a disappointing 2022 that undermined McLaren's prior progress, that was potentially very damaging.
As Norris admitted by the end of 2023, he has been in that position before: confident, and trusting, only to discover McLaren’s much-vaunted upgrades fall a little flat. And do not underestimate how tough he found the start of the year, when he said he was “dreading” the season.
“I thought that was going to be the whole year in a way,” he says. “We didn't know how much we were going to improve.
“You never want to start the season kind of thinking, ‘well I’ve got 24 races to go’, and I can't even get out Q1!
“It's tough kind of knowing that and thinking that so early on in the season. Just makes you think, ‘Damn, it's gonna be a hell of a long year’…”
At the same time, Norris knew he had plenty of suitors and potential alternatives.
It is no secret that Red Bull has tried to grab Norris before. It first started back when Norris was in Formula 2, with an intention of bringing him in to replace the struggling Brendon Hartley at Toro Rosso. Red Bull has sniffed around since.
Within McLaren, there is a feeling it never really stopped. So imagine if that Norris dissatisfaction had continued to the point where Sergio Perez's form nosedived in the Red Bull and speculation ignited over his seat for 2024.
That threat for McLaren remains longer-term, and there are other options, too. Ferrari may need a replacement for Carlos Sainz sooner rather than later.
Mercedes’ seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton cannot stave off retirement forever – ditto Fernando Alonso at Aston Martin. And while the project would appeal less than any of those teams, for now at least, Norris’s former McLaren boss Andreas Seidl has deep Audi pockets to dig into at Sauber.
“He’s a driver that everybody up and down pitlane wants,” Brown says of Norris.
“How much longer is Lewis going? What's Mercedes going to do? How much longer is Sergio going?
“So for sure, I think the three other big teams probably don't have visibility as to their driver line-up beyond '25.
“And I think with how Lando’s performed, he would be top of everyone's list.”
McLaren would not have made it cheap or easy for a rival to get their hands on Norris before the end of his contract. So a 2024 move might have been impossible regardless. But if things were so bad – as in, ‘early 2023 on-track’ bad – that McLaren had to really anchor down and force him to stay, chances are Norris would definitely not sign a new contract anyway.
It would have been the time for someone else to swoop. And conversely, combined with the time left on his existing deal, the timing was not right for McLaren to try to start negotiations earlier in 2023.
Brown jokes that “you pick your moments” and two hours after the Bahrain horror show that started the year was certainly not the right one. You move “when there’s momentum and things are feeling good” – which is much more the case now.
“I've had to do some ‘hang in there, I know things are frustrating’ talks, but I've had to do that with myself!” Brown says.
“But our relationship, I've never felt like it's transactional or under threat race by race.”
Brown’s always espoused a clear view that rivals do not steal drivers, sponsors or staff – the teams that have them lose them. And as he effectively admits, McLaren was at risk of that with Norris by failing to offer him what he needed and expected.
In early 2023, the respective McLaren and Norris trajectories were further apart than ever. Norris, off the back of immense 2021 and 2022 seasons, had evolved into a driver ready to win races. McLaren looked less likely to offer him that opportunity than at any point since his F1 debut in 2019 (below).
Norris agrees, broadly, with that assessment – and also agrees that 2023 was decisive in realigning the team’s progress with his own ambitions. He always believed McLaren could turn it around, but says: “This was the year that the team needed to kind of prove those things, which has been perfect.”
Cashing on that and trying to seal a new contract must now be very close to, if not at the very top of, Brown’s to-do list at McLaren. There’s no excuse not to.
New team principal Andrea Stella is a hit. His technical department’s rejig has worked. The big new signings from Ferrari and Red Bull are almost through the door.
The argument for Norris seeing things through with McLaren is as strong as it has ever been, if not stronger. Hence Brown thinks McLaren is in a “great place” to keep him.
“There is nothing we don't have going into 2026 that any of the other teams have,” says Brown, who views 2026 as the kind of “reset” that gives McLaren its best chance of a title.
“And he’s very comfortable in the environment, with his team-mate.
“As you go down and look at who can get it done in ’26, I think there's four or five teams that you could say can get it done, but we would be one of them.”
That could not have been said with the same conviction a few months ago.