If any proof is needed that 18-year-old Lando Norris is the hottest property on the fringes of Formula 1, they will be dispelled by the fact that Mercedes and Red Bull are courting McLaren’s test and reserve driver.
Norris has a had a stellar junior career, his collection of championship titles impressive:
- 2015 MSA Formula with Carlin;
- 2016 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 with Josef Kaufmann Racing
- 2016 Formula Renault 2.0 NEC with Josef Kaufmann Racing
- 2016 Toyota Racing Series (New Zealand) with M2 Competition
- 2017 FIA European Formula 3 Championship with Carlin
This year he is tackling the FIA Formula 2 Championship with Carlin and in the wake of the first two races, in Bahrain, he leads the championship after winning his debut race from pole position and finishing fourth in the second race.
In February last year, McLaren signed Norris to their junior programme after the youngster had discussions with Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault.
McLaren team chief Zak Brown said at the time, “Lando is an outstanding young talent. At McLaren, we are all extremely keen to help him achieve his goal of racing in Formula 1.”
So keen are they on the youngster that they have apparently dangled a carrot in front of Norris and fellow McLaren young driver Nyck de Vries.
According to 23-year-old De Vries, a McLaren seat in 2019 will be the reward for either him or Norris, depending on who wins the Formula 2 title, “That was literally said to me by director Zak Brown and it is in black and white. So I have it in my own hands.”
“Lando has a certain preference because of his good relationship with Zak Brown. His father pays Brown to manage Lando. But if I live up to expectations this season, I will be in F1 in 2019.”
But Brown has denied any such arrangement, “That is not an accurate reflection of the conversation but Nyck’s a very good driver”
“McLaren will always look to put the two best drivers that it can in the car and no one has any promises from McLaren verbally or contractually as to who is going to be in our car in 2019.”
“We won’t comment on our contracts but I can tell you that no one has a guarantee to be in our seat for 2019, regardless of any race results,” insisted Brown.
Whatever the case, it has emerged in recent weeks that Norris is again being courted by Mercedes with Red Bull apparently also showing an interest in the teenager.
Adam Norris, Lando’s father who is worth over €200-million, was spotted in a lengthy conversation with Toto Wolff during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, suggesting that a Plan-B for his son is being formulated.
According to a source close to Norris, his contract with McLaren does stipulate a Formula 1 drive with the team in 2019 if he wins the Formula 2 title this year. Sand should McLaren fail to honour the F1 promise, then the contract they have with him would have to be renegotiated or alternatively he could leave the Woking outfit.
Step in Wolff and Mercedes who would no doubt be very keen to add Norris to their own young driver programme which already includes George Russell, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon.
But Mercedes would have a problem luring Norris to the team because they simply have no seat to offer him on the Formula 1 grid next year.
Pascal Wehrlein had to step down and return to DTM as no seat was available to him on the F1 grid, while Ocon is now established at Force India and unlikely to be ousted to make way for Norris.
This is where Red Bull come into the picture because they could slot him into a Toro Rosso in 2019 if need be.
Right now the pipeline of Red Bull Junior Team drivers ready to step up to is dry. Pierre Gasly was the last of the ‘ready-to-race in Formula 1’ drivers on their payroll and he is in his rookie season with Toro Rosso.
Norris himself is keen to move up and said in an interview after testing for McLaren last year, “I’ve been given a chance in Formula 1 to prove what I can do, and a point now where I feel reasonably ready for it.”
“I think I did a reasonably well, and I hope it opens up more opportunities, and I think it’s better to do that earlier rather than later,” suggesting that the youngster and his minders are keen to step up to the top flight asap.
Earlier this year when quizzed by Marca about his future, Norris said, “You could say it depends on what Alonso does. We’ll have to wait to see what Fernando wants to do because I think [McLaren] are also happy with Vandoorne.”
“I can develop a lot and definitely improve as a driver in 2018. Obviously, my goal is to be at McLaren but if I cannot get a place here, then I’ll have to look for other opportunities.”
What the future has in store for Norris is pure speculation, for now will focus on winning the Formula 2 championship and as his shares sky-rocket McLaren will be hard pressed to hold on to his services as Mercedes and Red Bull, both with very deep pockets, sniff for an opportunity to nab the lad.
Big Question: Will McLaren be able to hold onto Lando amid the temptations from Mercedes and Red Bull?