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Formula 1

The crucial F1 driver trait Norris shares with Leclerc

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
8 min read

The best Formula 1 drivers never stop learning, and learn the most on their bad days. These can come through misfortune – a team error, or unreliability, or an accident caused by someone else – or they can come through mistakes.

No driver is perfect but the slope of progression is at its steepest early on. There is pressure to perform as a young driver in F1, not least when the driver has a huge amount of expectation around them. This is a time where mistakes are most likely, and the room to improve is at its largest.

Rectifying a weakness requires a driver to acknowledge there is one, though, and there are often barriers to this.

A top driver’s confidence has to be high and the line between that and arrogance is very thin.

That makes it easy for drivers to reject the notion they might be making mistakes, or not doing something as well as they could. Partly because they think they know best. Partly because admitting otherwise could damage their ego and confidence.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Max Verstappen was a good example of this in 2018, when he point-blank refused to consider ‘changing his approach’ after a run of high-profile incidents early in the year. He was willing to take a contrary position to his own team in public, and stood by his actions and driving.

Eventually though his form turned around. And later in the year, he admitted he had done exactly what he’d wanted his critics to stop telling him to do.

The most aware drivers know that true confidence is the ability to accept an imperfection and improve on it, thereby increasing their performance, rather than letting it hurt their mentality and their form.

It is a champion’s trait that we’ve seen on many occasions with Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, which is why his education in F1 has seemed fast-tracked. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn, and Leclerc’s made mistakes – but rarely, if ever, the same one twice.

Now Lando Norris has taken a step in performance this season it appears we are witnessing the same trait.

Norris’s prodigious karting and junior single-seater career put him firmly in the same echelon as Leclerc for ‘highly-rated young talent’ but he had a less convincing move into Formula 2 – winning on his debut then never again, and ‘only’ finishing runner-up to champion George Russell.

When Norris then moved straight into F1 some felt it was too soon and doubted whether he actually had the capacity to be a truly elite driver. An opportunistic podium finish in the 2020 season opener, and last-gasp charge to fifth in round two, have offered prominent examples this year that he has indeed made the step required to start convincing his most hyper-critical doubters.

But the third round of the season in Hungary, where Norris finished well outside of the top 10, then gave just as strong an indication of why Norris might just have what it takes to be a title contender in the future. He, like Leclerc, has mastered the art of self-criticism.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Preparation Day Budapest, Hungary

“The things I really wanted to improve on as a driver, I’ve done much better at,” he said immediately after the Hungarian GP, which was a disappointing end to an otherwise very positive opening triple-header.

“But yeah, I’m still not the driver I need to be.

“I still made the mistake today, which probably didn’t cost me a huge amount of points. But I think in the long run, you want to be scoring whenever you have the opportunity to.

“Today I think we did have the opportunity to get those one or two which could prove quite costly come the end of the season.”

Norris threw away eighth on the grid with a bad getaway in damp conditions at the Hungaroring, getting too much wheelspin in the second phase of the start and dropping down to 14th. His race was compromised – well, completely wrecked – in a matter of seconds.

That doesn’t eliminate the quality of his opening two races but it was a stark reminder of how quickly one can go from hero to zero in F1. After two grands prix Norris felt were “perfect” he was brought down to Earth with a “proper mistake, a big error”.

It’s significant, though, that he probably didn’t need the mistake to have the right attitude. He has been a methodical and critical driver through his career, impressing with his logical approach right back to his formative car-racing seasons.

All his costly Hungarian GP mistake has done is just put his attitude in the spotlight. Like Leclerc spinning in the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix or crashing in Azerbaijan Grand Prix qualifying last year, for example.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

Asked by The Race this week to reflect on his self-beratement in Hungary, Norris said that was particularly prominent because the only thing that “screwed me over” was his “one big mistake”.

“I have the ability to be harsh on myself and in a lot of the scenarios, I think it’s good that I’m able to realise that,” he says.

“And it makes me work hard that I’m not happy with the job I’ve done.

“I guess this one is a bit different because it’s just one mistake and it wasn’t just a combined bad race.

“So it’s hard to think of it in a terrible way, but at the same time I wasn’t happy because I had a chance to get points, and I didn’t get them.

“So, of course I’m not going to be happy.”

As McLaren bids to rejoin F1’s elite, Norris will have more opportunities to score big results but also make errors that have bigger and bigger consequences.

The key will be to continue rationalising the mistakes, minimising repeats and improving rather than feeling he is letting chances slip through his fingers, or harming his confidence behind the wheel.

Norris hasn’t got carried away with the start to the season. There have been drivers in the past who reach a new level and believe their work is finished, or their focus then turns to improving something else.

It’s been well-documented that part of Norris’s process was cutting back on some of the joking around. He was a prominent Twitch streamer during the coronavirus-enforced hiatus but his dedication appears to have been unaffected and now the season has started he is firmly focused on the main objective.

That doesn’t mean he’s not “having fun and enjoying myself”, he’s just become “a bit more serious when I’ve got to be”.

Blending that extra percentage of dedication with his self-scrutinising mentality has already been rewarded and if he is able to maintain it, then his obvious potential can be realised quite spectacularly.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, Hungary

Norris is aware of the pitfalls of doing the opposite and assuming he has ticked off the boxes he wanted to in his sophomore season, even though he is understandably satisfied with how he has built on an impressive rookie campaign.

“The main thing out of these first few weekends is how rewarding it’s been seeing that progress that I’ve made,” says Norris.

“But at the same time it’s not something I want to just get ahead of myself on, and go to Silverstone and I do a bad job or something on the tyres and not look after the front left for example, and have a bad race because of it.

“So, I’m not saying I’m perfect and I’m a miles better race driver than what I was, but I am doing a better job than what I did last year.

“I put myself in a better position, through qualifying, through race strategy, through race performance.

“And a lot of this has led on to those better results which are rewarding seeing that progress that I’ve made.

“It’s just keeping in account that I need to continue to work on it if I want to see these kind of results and not relax and slip up and think that I’ve achieved something all of a sudden, just because I got a podium.

“It doesn’t mean that I’ve achieved everything I need to and I’m now the race driver that I have to be.

“There’s still a lot of things I’ve got to keep working on and then progressing on. And I think that’s the important thing.”

It is, because the template is alongside him in the midfield fight. Ferrari might be struggling in 2020 but Leclerc is still the perfect ‘protege-done-good’ benchmark to compare Norris against.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Preparation Day Budapest, Hungary

Leclerc had ups and downs in his first season in F1 but what was so impressive was how the early-season rookie struggles were so quickly transformed into potent performances.

He earned an immediate promotion to Ferrari as a result, took one weekend to conquer a minor qualifying weakness, and went to great lengths to eliminate the deficit he had to experienced team-mate Sebastian Vettel on tyre management too.

Leclerc should be piecing all that together fighting for a title in 2020 but Ferrari’s disappointing car and engine package means he’s actually alongside Norris in the midfield.

But if Ferrari sorts itself out and becomes a championship contender, Leclerc will be an equivalent calibre of driver. His relentless quest for self-improvement will see to that.

Norris is a year, maybe two, behind in that progress. But he is on the same path and shares that champion’s trait.

An extreme critique of Norris’s credentials might still have a question mark over his ultimate performance potential. But there is an increasing pile of evidence to suggest if that potential is there, Norris has just the right attitude to reach it.

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