Formula 1

McLaren wants Norris to match Verstappen in key area

by Edd Straw
5 min read

To cite Max Verstappen as an example to follow for any Formula 1 driver is stating the obvious, but when McLaren team principal Andrea Stella sets the triple world champion’s “new standards” for consistency of delivery as the benchmark for Lando Norris to work towards, it’s clear there are particular lessons to learn.

Stake

It’s a topic Stella has talked about regularly during the past six months, particularly given the hard time Norris has given himself about the qualifying errors that have typically been followed by fury over the radio and some frank interviews once out of the car.

Stella characterises it as the need to recognise when delivering at 97-99% rather than 100% will suffice rather than trying to drag the maximum out of the car while on the ragged edge. That’s significant because it’s the same lesson Verstappen had to learn.

This is far from unusual as every great F1 driver - which Verstappen is and that Norris hopes to be on a trajectory to become - has had to go through this.

For Norris’s tendency to overdo it on qualifying laps, read Verstappen’s run of mistakes in 2018 that became a big talking point as too often impatience undid him early in the season.

Then, Verstappen was in a comparable position to Norris in that he was in a good car but not the best and was at times guilty of overreaching through his desire to wring everything out of it. While the resulting errors were less subtle than Norris’s, the underpinning reasons were the same.

Stella’s appraisal of where Norris is makes it clear that Norris must make similar steps to the ones Verstappen did to refine his prodigious talent into a driver capable of delivering the astonishing levels of consistency the reigning world champion does.

“Definitely, that was a strong season for Lando,” said Stella when asked for an appraisal of Norris heading into the 2024 campaign.

“If we look at the numbers from Austria [onwards], Lando is the second highest scorer behind Max so this reflects the quality of the driving, the delivery he is capable of as a Formula 1 driver, which puts him at the top of the grid.

“At the same time, opportunities are available. We had some contacts with some of the walls like the one in qualifying in Saudi that came a little out of the blue really. And I would say when you ask where do they come from, I don't think there's a single element that one should identify and attack.

"When you deal with champions, when you deal with delivering at such a high level in professional sport, you need to look at opportunities very holistically.

"Things are also quite connected, like the physical state is connected with the mental state, which is connected with the wellbeing overall, with the integration in the team. All these factors are very strong on Lando’s side, but it's just the game is so competitive that you need to be at the top consistently. That’s what makes the difference.

“It is not really the top potential. Especially for Lando, this is like almost unexplored as well, how good he is.

"Sometimes he surprises us with some of the performances he put together, think about the pole position in the sprint in Brazil after he had lost the two or three tenths in the first sector, how did he manage to put it on pole in the other five corners? That was just amazing.

“But consistency in this kind of delivery, this is what makes the difference. And I think Max is really establishing, for what we have seen recently, new standards in terms of how consistently you can perform strongly.

"So that's the ethos. This is the objective, working with our drivers. Definitely that's something that we have at the top of our agenda as we head on to 2024.”

It's an essential process to go through and has proved make or break for many drivers. What’s more, as Stella says it’s a complicated equation that’s not simply about dialling it back, but being in the right place mentally and in your collaboration with the team to piece things together.

Speaking at a time when Verstappen’s errors were a big talking point after the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix where the infamous collision with team-mate Daniel Ricciardo happened, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told me “maybe we’ll look back on this one day, and maybe it’ll be a defining moment”. So it proved to be as Verstappen himself eventually admitted he did modify his approach, saying late in the season that “I just wanted too much initially”.

It is a completely understandable problem for any driver trying to drag every last iota of performance from the car, but given Verstappen in 2018 and Norris recently have both been driving cars that are good but not great, it’s easy to be sucked into making mistakes.

When pole position is within reach, as it might occasionally have been for Norris, but the driver feels it needs a perfect lap to deliver it, over-reaching can be the inevitable result.

Similarly, as history proves, it is easier to calibrate your approach when in the best car, albeit not straightforward as proved by the fact it takes special drivers to do so with the astounding consistency Verstappen managed last year.

However, if Norris is to be ready to do that if and when he is such a competitive car, it’s essential he refines his game while on the way there – just as Verstappen did in emerging as an increasingly dependable force in the two seasons leading up to his first world championship in 2021.

It would be a mistake to assume that it will all just come together once in a championship-winning car, just as it would be wrong to underestimate just how remarkable Verstappen was last year simply because he was in machinery with the greatest performance potential. It's a fine line to tread, one Verstappen does with great precision.

Outstanding drivers learn when they need to be right on the edge, which counter-intuitively is not a constant necessity. How well they refine this can dictate whether or not a driver fulfils their potential, and what Stella says suggests Norris couldn’t be in a better place to do that.

Now, it's down to him to deliver.

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