Norris: Everyone told me Perez or Ocon would get the seat

Lando Norris, who will debut for McLaren next year as Britain’s newest and youngest ever Formula 1 driver, is a man in a hurry but thought he was out of contention for the seat and admits the news caught him off guard.

“It happens to everyone, better own up to it than not,” he grinned in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday when the thorny subject was put to him.

Speaking a day after news broke that he will be replacing Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne next year in an all-new lineup with Spaniard Carlos Sainz, Norris relived the excitement of having a dream come true.

“I was smiling for the rest of my flight home,” after returning to the McLaren factory from the Italian Grand Prix. “I literally didn’t stop smiling. It’s been a long time coming, to finally make this step into Formula 1 with McLaren.”

The Formula 2 title contender was the frontrunner for the job, as a protege of team principal Zak Brown, who snapped him up after he won the McLaren BRDC young driver of the year award in 2016. But it was not an absolute certainty.

“I was told just before the race in Monza. Just as I was leaving I bumped into Zak, which I didn’t mean to do. He said he had something to tell me and I wasn’t expecting it at all, to be honest.”

“After everyone told me about Perez or Ocon who could get the seat, I was a bit more unsure. So it did come as a bit of a surprise, a bit of a shock, but at the same time I was more or less ready to hear that if it did come.”

While following in the footsteps of four-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, the compatriot who started with McLaren in 2007, it is Italian MotoGP great Valentino Rossi that Norris holds up as his boyhood idol.

“I was more into MotoGP before I started watching Formula One. and I loved his colour scheme basically,” he said. “The yellow, ‘The Doctor’. He was always a bit different and changed helmets and had different things.”

“My helmet design I have now is pretty much based off of his. He has the sun and the moon and mine is pretty much the sun and… I’ve adjusted it towards what I like a bit more but it originated from him.”

The youngster, who obtained his regular driving licence as a 17-year-old, has taken part in Friday practice sessions and tests for McLaren and the next step will not faze him, “I feel ready for it, McLaren obviously think I’m ready for it,” he said.

McLaren’s reputation with young drivers, Hamilton excepted, has been poor of late but Norris said he was not worried about what had befallen Perez, Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen and now Vandoorne at the under-performing team.

“I focus on my own job,” he said. “I think McLaren need a fresh start. That’s why I’m in. For the best progression of the team and getting the team back to where they need to be and winning I believe having two fresh drivers is the best thing. If we can, hopefully I’ll be the one winning.”

That prospect remains some way off, with Norris looking to score points and learn as much as he can once he gets into the cockpit.

“I’m not going to be aiming for a win,” he said of his rookie 2019 F1 season. “It’s going to be aiming on beating your teammate but working as a team, developing. Because I want to win and the only way I can do that is by helping the team altogether.”

“I don’t really know what to expect next year. It’s sunk in in terms of people saying ‘you’re a Formula 1racing driver’ but in terms of being one, and experiencing it, I don’t think it’s going to sink in until after the first race.”

Asked what kind of a driver he was, Norris smiled and replied, “I’m pretty calm. I change. Sometimes I’m a bit under-aggressive and sometimes a bit over. But I think it’s good to have both.”