Formula 1

Lando Norris interview: ‘Formula One is a lonely life’

Lando Norris interview: ‘Formula One is a lonely life’

Lando Norris: ‘I absolutely think I can go up against Max and give him a good challenge’ – Benedict Redgrove

Lando Norris could roll out of bed at next week’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone and stumble into his McLaren motorhome in a matter of minutes. He will be staying at the Hilton Garden Inn, which overlooks the famous Northamptonshire circuit’s start/finish straight, and has a rather fancy covered walkway that extends out over the track to the main pits and paddock complex. Norris, though, would rather take the long way around each morning.

‘I could just walk across the bridge and not see a soul,’ he says. ‘But I prefer to drive in because I want to get that buzz. I like the feeling of driving through the gates, through the crowds. There’s no place like Silverstone for that, especially for McLaren. I’m sure it’s the same for Ferrari at Imola or Monza. It’s exciting. It gets the blood going. I did the same last year, driving a McLaren Senna. I want to drive a classic car this year. Maybe a Shelby, or a Cobra…’

Norris pauses, and shakes his head, a smile appearing on his face as he pictures the scene. ‘Silverstone this year is going to be insane,’ he says.

He can say that again. After doom and gloom in Shanghai in April, where Red Bull’s triple world champion Max Verstappen cruised to a 21st victory in 23 races, and sleep experts wondered whether Formula 1 might have stumbled on a cure for insomnia, the sport is suddenly fun again. And Norris has been instrumental in making it so. It was the 24-year-old’s breakout victory in Miami in May – his first in 110 races in Formula 1 – which triggered it.

Norris’s carefree celebrations afterwards, partying all night before jetting to Georgia, hungover, for a round of golf at Augusta National the next morning, had an old-school Formula 1 vibe about them. And that spirit has been infectious. Since Miami the races have been a complete free-for-all. Verstappen has still won most of them, admittedly. But only by the skin of his teeth. Ferrari won in Monaco, Mercedes should have won in Canada.

It is Norris, though, who is leading the revolution; the man most consistently taking the fight to Verstappen. In Spain last weekend, he blazed to pole position and would have won the race had he not, in his own words, ‘f—ked up’ the start. Norris did move up to second in the drivers’ championship in Barcelona, however. Heading into this weekend’s race in Austria, Norris has a deficit of 69 points, with 14 races of the season remaining. He firmly believes he is in the title race.

‘It still feels weird saying it, doesn’t it?’ he admits. ‘And I feel like, if I do say it, everyone is thinking, calm down! But yeah, absolutely I feel we’re in the title race. If you look at the last few race weekends, you’d be stupid not to say it.’

We are sitting in an upstairs conference room at the McLaren Technology Centre, the Norman Foster-designed house that former head honcho Sir Ron Dennis built. Norris has spent the morning in a new state-of-the-art simulator, before a quick debrief with his team principal Andrea Stella. The Italian, a popular figure in the paddock, sticks his head around the door before I turn on the tape recorder, to apologise for holding Norris up.

‘He’s a classy guy, Andrea,’ Norris notes after his boss has left. ‘Very emotionally intelligent. That’s probably one of his biggest strengths. He knows how to make everyone feel good. A lot of the improvements we’ve made in recent years are not because we’ve hired 1,000 new people and gone, “Right, let’s turn things upside down!” A lot of the guys have been here for the last 10 years. They just weren’t being exploited in the best way.’

Norris pictured at the McLaren Technology Centre, with a slightly less powerful vehicle (a combination between McLaren and electric scooter brand Pure) – Benedict Redgrove

Norris is not overstating McLaren’s improvement. The past 12 months have seen the Woking team develop faster than any other on the grid, and Norris’s star has risen commensurately. Pushed on by his young Australian teammate Oscar Piastri, his driving has reached a new level this season. Stella, who worked with world champions Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso during his time at Ferrari, puts the young Briton in that bracket. ‘Lando definitely stands together with them,’ Stella said in January, when Norris signed a new, improved contract currently estimated to be worth up to £20 million a year, and rising.

‘It is the same category, the same kind of world championship material, the underlying talent, the mindset, the work ethos. It’s all ready to go.’ Norris is already beginning to deliver on that prediction. Below us, at the far end of McLaren’s famous Boulevard – where you’ll find cabinets housing a groaning collection of silverware (the team has won 184 F1 races, 12 Drivers’ Championships, eight Constructors’ Championships) – is the Miami trophy he picked up in May.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that the Bristol-born driver is the hottest property in British sport right now. Formula 1 is booming, the so-called ‘Netflix effect’ – the surge in interest brought about by the popularity of its Drive To Survive fly-on-the-wall series – having driven an army of new fans to the sport, and Norris is arguably its brightest young star; quick driver, cheeky personality, boy-band looks (he is particularly popular with the young female demographic that every sport wants to tap into).

It was not always this way. The Norris who made his F1 debut in 2019 – coincidentally the same year Drive To Survive first hit our screens – was a far less assured young man. He still had the same sassy irreverence he has now, the same sense of fun. But he was less confident in himself, the product of a childhood that was undoubtedly privileged but often very lonely. Norris’s mother Cisca is from the Flanders region of Belgium – he holds dual British and Belgian citizenship – and his father, Adam, an investor and entrepreneur, is one of Britain’s wealthiest men with a personal fortune estimated at £205 million. Norris, the second-oldest of four siblings, makes no bones about the leg-up his father’s wealth gave him, particularly as he progressed through the junior ranks. But he is proud of the fact that he took the final step himself. ‘I never wanted him to pay for me to come into Formula 1,’ Norris insisted on a recent episode of The High Performance Podcast. ‘He could support me until Formula 1, or let’s say Formula 2…

But I personally wouldn’t want to come into Formula 1 having to pay for it… I feel much prouder to say that I’m here because McLaren brought me on and I was a McLaren junior driver.’

After numerous podium finishes, Miami was his first Grand Prix win – but Lando Norris is determined to win many more – Benedict Redgrove

Norris’s interest in motorsport blossomed from a young age, although he was initially more into bikes. A Valentino Rossi obsessive, as a child he had a 50cc machine which he was allowed to ride round the garden of the family’s West Country home. He switched to four wheels after first getting in a go-kart aged seven. Norris remembers his father buying a clapped-out old car and some dirt tyres, and they would do laps of the field together. ‘I’d sit on his lap and we’d just tear around on this thing. What’s the worst Citroën? A Saxo or something? He bought it for about £200 and it would overheat in 10 minutes.’

Later, desperate to drive anything with an engine, he took a fancy to the family mower. There was a problem, though. It had a minimum weight limit. ‘I used to love driving the mower,’ he recalls. ‘It was a proper sit-on one. But I was so small when I was a kid – 30kg when I was 10 – I had to drag some of my dad’s dumbbells from some old gym equipment he had, and put them on the mower, because the mower wouldn’t start unless there was 50kg on top. I used to go out after school and just drive the mower, and cut everything and perfect the garden!’

The constant travelling as he made his way through karting, and then junior Formulae, exacted a toll on both his relationships and his confidence.

Norris can party with the best of them these days, but he found it difficult to make friends growing up. After finishing second behind Verstappen in Imola last month (behind by just 0.7 seconds), he confessed he had been ‘a bit of a loner’ at school. What did he mean by that?

Norris on childhood experiences: ‘I missed so much’ – Benedict Redgrove

‘I think when I was super-young, I loved [school],’ says Norris, who attended Millfield Prep School from year two. ‘Like all kids, you love it. And you have a lot of friends and stuff. But when I started travelling a little bit – by the time I was eight I was racing properly – I would start to miss a bit of school. And I think as soon as you have that, at such a young age, it already starts to affect you.

‘And it only gets worse. The more you step up, the more you travel, the more you go away, the longer the weekends are, you’re travelling to Europe… and that age is when most people make childhood friends, some of which last a lifetime.’

Norris, whose family had relocated to Somerset partly so he could attend the school as a day boarder, left Millfield in year 10 before completing his GCSEs. ‘I missed so much,’ he recalls. ‘I remember missing the first week [in September] and arriving after everyone had already settled in. And I’m like, “I don’t really know anyone here. And I’m late.” And then I’m there for three days, and then I’m gone again. I just never really settled.’

Did the experience shape his personality? ‘Oh completely. I was also tiny as a kid so I just wasn’t that confident. My whole life was racing. Whenever I was at school I was watching racing videos, and sitting on my own. Obviously I did make some friends, but not best friends. At boarding school people stay with their mates during holidays or weekends. But I never did any of that. I just travelled to the races, came back, went to school, went home, got on the sim [racing simulator]…

I wasn’t bullied or anything. I just never really integrated. I missed that growing-up period. I never went out. Never partied. And then by the time I was 18, I was almost in Formula 1. And then you’re like, “OK, be a good boy,” and all of that.’

Did his peers understand at least? ‘I don’t think people really understood what I was doing. It’s not like I was in Formula 1 back then, and not many people understand what happens before Formula 1. Anyway, yeah, I kind of regret it a little bit now. Because these days I’m much happier to go out and meet new people.’

Even after making it to motorsport’s top table, it took a while for Norris to come out of his shell. In a column for The Telegraph during the 2022 season, after that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, he confessed he hardly drank. ‘I don’t really drink at the best of times,’ Norris wrote. ‘If I ever win a race they are going to have to find me something other than Champagne as I cannot stand the stuff.’

‘Some people are going to like you, some aren’t. They can have whatever perception they want. You just have to accept that.’ – Benedict Redgrove

He appears to be making up for lost time now. Norris arrived at his life-changing race in Miami sporting a plaster across the bridge of his nose, the result of an ‘incident’ during a boat party with friends in Amsterdam. Pictures on social media of Norris, his face wrapped in bandages, looking like Frankenstein’s monster, made it appear worse than it was. ‘It was just a cut glass,’ he insists. ‘My friend tried to grab it to stop me drinking from it. And then his hand came off the glass, so he’s like pulling on it, and I’m also pulling on it, and then he just let go. And yeah, my friend put a bandage on for like five minutes, as a joke, and one person took a photo and then that just ruined everything. I fielded a few frantic phone calls after that.’

Still, Norris had the last laugh, winning the race – plaster still in place – and then hitting Miami with even greater abandon. Not that he rates himself as a latter-day James Hunt. ‘No! We get drug-tested like every freaking week. No, those are the old days.’

Norris seems to have found a happy work-life balance now. Since 2022, he has lived in Monaco – one of nine F1 drivers to do so, including Verstappen and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton (and the Monégasque Charles Leclerc). He does not deny moving there for tax reasons, but it makes sense for other reasons too. He is rarely in one country for more than a few days anyway. He drives fast cars. He plays a lot of golf (when we speak he is about to go up to Scotland with McLaren’s American chief executive, Zak Brown, to play a couple of rounds). He is a thoroughly modern F1 driver, running an entertainment and apparel business, Quadrant, away from the track.

Norris and Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone, 2023 – Formula 1

He retains a few close friends from his karting days. And he is unapologetic about the lengths to which he will go to maintain those friendships: ‘I think the only way to stay really close friends with someone is to spend time with them. So that’s what I try to do. I try to fly with them, or bring them along to races. You know, like go to Japan together and spend a week there. Or to Texas. I’m happy even paying for them all to go.’

Some people might perceive that to be sad, to be in some way buying friendships, but Norris is unembarrassed. ‘It’s worth it because you just want to be with your friends and have a good time,’ he says, shrugging. ‘And that’s a priceless thing, I think. That’s what you miss more than anything through the years: just spending time with friends and having good memories and good laughs.

‘Now more and more I fly my friends out, so we can play some golf together, or just hang out. Otherwise, again, you just get more and more isolated.’

There are other downsides, he says, the lack of privacy being the biggest. In 2022, Norris revealed that he and his then girlfriend, Portuguese model Luisinha Barosa Oliveira, had been subject to abuse and death threats from online trolls. When he invited another woman over for a McDonald’s after their break-up, the messages were leaked online. More recently, Norris was photographed at Vigo airport in Spain getting on a private jet with another Portuguese model. He remains tight-lipped on what their relationship status is, and whether he has a girlfriend at the moment. ‘It’s tough,’ he says of the intrusion into his private life. ‘And it can make you a bit paranoid. Like, that picture in Vigo was clearly from a tip-off. I thought, there’s no chance someone happened to be waiting there, in the middle of nowhere, to take a picture. It was professional. So it’s clearly people that work there, who told someone, “Lando’s coming, be ready.” It can make it difficult to trust people.’

Norris with his former girlfriend, Luisinha Barosa Oliveira – NurPhoto

There is also the ever-present risk of being cancelled for saying the wrong thing. In Miami, McLaren (along with F1 and the FIA) hosted former US President Donald Trump – on a brief break from his hush-money trial in New York. Norris was asked afterwards for his thoughts on their meeting. ‘Donald is someone that you’ve got to have a lot of respect for in many ways,’ he ventured, still on a high from his win and not having rehearsed a response. ‘And yeah, for anyone like that who acknowledges what you can go out and do and acknowledges the work ethic that goes into things, you’ve got to be thankful for that. And I was. So yeah, a cool moment. And that’s all.’ He copped some flak in some quarters, but many others were impressed that he spoke so openly.

‘I think the problem is you’ve got social media and all that nonsense these days,’ Norris reflects. ‘If you just accidentally say something wrong – or something some people perceive to be wrong… I try not to worry too much about it.’

He says he takes a leaf out of Verstappen’s book in that respect. The reigning world champion, who he rates as ‘probably his closest friend’ on the grid, is known for the bluntness of his opinions. ‘I think you should just live more freely like he does,’ Norris continues. ‘I definitely care too much about people’s perceptions of me. I certainly think I cared way too much when I started out in like 2019-2020, though I care less now. Some people are going to like you, some aren’t. They can have whatever perception they want. You just have to accept that.

Norris with his ‘closest friend’ on the grid, the Dutch driver Max Verstappen – Formula 1

‘Before, I think I wanted everyone to like me, and never to say the wrong thing. But more and more I’ve realised I just want to say what I like and say what I don’t. And people don’t need to like what I’ve said. Of course you can’t go too far. But it’s just a lot less stressful living like that.’

Not that he’s complaining. ‘It’s a different life,’ he says of the Formula 1 world. ‘A lonely one in many respects. But I’ve never been one to say, “I wish I could go back and change it.” I’m very, very lucky to be a Formula 1 driver. I would never complain.’

It is an older, wiser Norris who will drive from the Hilton Garden Inn through the crowds to compete at Silverstone next week. More confident in himself and what he stands for. Less anxious about people’s opinions of him. And best of all, at the peak of his game, in an ever-improving McLaren machine. Earlier this year, Norris was criticised by some for saying it would not be a ‘smart move’ to join Verstappen at Red Bull, prompting accusations he was afraid to go up against the Dutchman. He insists that was not the case. ‘I believe I can achieve a championship at McLaren, that’s why I signed another contract [in January],’ he says. ‘I absolutely think I can go up against Max and give him a good challenge. But I also rate Max; it’s extremely difficult for anyone to challenge him for a world championship. Anyway, I look like a bit of a genius [staying with McLaren] now, don’t I?’

Can he imagine what the reaction will be like if he wins next weekend? Norris shakes his head and whistles. ‘I remember when I took the lead off the line last year, how cool it was,’ he says. ‘I had a moment where I thought, damn, I’m leading the British Grand Prix! I remember coming around Luffield [corner] and looking to the fans, and seeing them cheering…

‘That’s the biggest thing, genuinely. The effect that they have. As a feeling, not just as a thought. It puts a smile on your face, on the inside of your helmet. Like, “Wow.”’

Maybe he can celebrate by mowing his parents’ lawn? Norris laughs. He is aiming much higher these days. ‘I’ve got a deal with Zak – that if I win the championship he has to get me a car,’ he confides. ‘I’ve specified which car. We shook on it, but that’s all I’m saying. There’s a long way to go, it’s still a lot of points. But who knows?’

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