Norris: I looked up to Valentino Rossi and wanted to be like him

One of this year’s standout rookie Lando Norris revealed that his first racing hero was MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi, the Italian superstar inspiring the youngster who admits that he only believed he would make it into Formula 1 on the day he signed to be a McLaren driver.

Norris is part of a fine crop of rookies that have emerged in the top flight this year, he as well as George Russell and Alex Albon have outshone many of their more experienced rivals this season. Impressing the establishment.

After his first 12 Grand Prix races, Norris’ record shows that he scored his first points in his second F1 race and despite three DNFs has scored on four more occasions which has him tenth in the championship standings with nine rounds remaining.

But, notably, his performances are capturing the hearts and minds of F1 fans who voted him the fifth-best driver on the grid at the moment and top of the Class-of-2019 rookies, while his humourous social media antics further endear Norris to followers of the sport.

GP247’s Ben Stevens had the opportunity to sit down with 19-year-old before the summer break. And this is what they spoke about:

How has it been, your first Formula 1 season?
Lando Norris: I think we’ve done a good job so far. I’m proud, I think we’ve achieved some good results – not just me myself but as a team we’ve got some good results, some good points, and so far – touch wood – I’ve not made any big mistakes or silly mistakes. I’ve made mistakes but nothing which has cost me points and positions and getting into Q3 because I made a mistake or something like that. When I’ve had the opportunity to get into Q3 we’ve been able to do it, and whenever we’ve been able to get into the points – apart from maybe Australia – we’ve been able to do it. I’ve always been there when I’ve needed to be, I’ve not made any silly or stupid mistakes, which I think I can be very happy with.

Charles Leclerc said recently he was very intimidated when he turned up at Ferrari. Has it been the same for you at McLaren?
LN: Um, not so much, because I had been with them [McLaren] for two-and-a-half years almost so I felt more at ease with that kind of thing. When I first joined, it’s a big place with so many people, a lot of history, you kind of feel a bit intimidated but yeah, because I did some FP1s, because I did testing, I was at a lot of the race weekends last year either doing F2, or when I wasn’t I was still doing FP1, or if I wasn’t doing either of them, I was still there just to watch and be in the engineering briefings and be there with the team. So I had a nice introduction and knew everyone, and that made it much easier for me to take the step into the seat.

Is there a reason why you seem more comfortable this year in Formula 1 than last year in Formula 2?
LN: I don’t know why. I think a combination of a lot of things. I think in F1 you can drive the car more naturally than in Formula 2. In Formula 2, you have to drive the car in quite a specific way, a lot of tyre saving, it’s very structured how you have to do it. I couldn’t drive as naturally and as normally as I could in say, Formula 3 and as you can do in Formula 1.
In Formula 1, there’s so many tools, you can adapt a lot of things to how you drive, and in formula 2 you can’t. So a bit of that and yeah, some times it’s just some cars you get along better with than others and this car I can feel better for whatever reason.

Is the negative side of being a Formula 1 star, that you are now completely in the spotlight?
LN: I guess. If you make one small mistake, or you do something people just want to make stories out of, want to try and become a hero from showing something, yeah… Obviously it can catch a driver out sometimes, because they are in the spotlight more, but it’s just something you have to deal with. There’s always going to be things in your past which you’ve done by mistake or at the time you found very funny – and you can still find it funny – but the public don’t find it funny, just stupid things which people want to make a lot worse than they are.

There are many young drivers that are very talented but it takes more than being talented to become an F1 driver. What do you consider also being important to being successful in a team like McLaren, because I know you’ve already been very professional in your past with your health and fitness programs and so on. How important is that side away from racing?
LN: I think it’s very important. It’s important to have a good bunch of people around you. You know I have my manager and my trainer, who I’ve been with since 2014, my manager since 2012, and they’ve steered me in the right direction a lot of the time. I’ve kind of done a different path to a lot of drivers, through Ginetta and then Formula 4 and so on, so I’ve done different things to a lot of people. I guess the key things are hard work, dedication, so a lot of time in karting already, away traveling, practicing, testing, doing races and so on, and continuing that all the way through Ginetta, Formula 4, Formula Renault, Formula 3, everything. It’s just hard work and practice – those are the two things that can get you a long way if you do them properly.

But not normal for a young guy!
LN: I mean I’ve had the right people around me. If I was just thinking on my own, or my dad – as much as my dad wants to help, he doesn’t know as much about racing and the people you have to be with, the teams, and so on – as someone who’s been in motorsport before, so if I didn’t have them, I probably wouldn’t be who I am.

You’re driving for a very traditional team, do you have any heroes from McLaren times back then?
LN: Not really.

No Senna, no Hakkinen…
LN: No, I didn’t know about them, I didn’t grow up watching them.

So you didn’t grow up as a normal motorsports fan?
LN: No.

So how did you get to motorsport then?
LN: We just went to watch a race one day, I wanted to have a go.

Which race was that?
LN: It wasn’t in Formula 1, it was in go-karting.

Very different…
LN: So the first thing I watched was when Lewis and Fernando were racing in McLaren, that was the first year I really started watching Formula 1, I was enjoying watching. I never went to go and watch a [F1] race, but that was the first time I really started to enjoy cars and I loved watching. And because I saw it on TV we went to watch a karting race, and then it started, but it wasn’t like my dad knew about it, I grew up in the family knowing about it… one day we went to watch karting and suddenly it all started. When I started it wasn’t like I was trying to get with the best team and the best people, I was just doing it for fun, because I was a seven-year-old or eight-year-old who just enjoyed driving round in a go-kart, no because at that time I thought I wanted to be in Formula 1, I just thought “this was fun, I just wanted do this for a bit.”

Who inspired you at the time?
LN: I watched [MotoGP] on TV before I saw Formula 1. Rossi is cool, I like the colours, the blue and the yellow, it’s why my helmet is very similar. He was more the guy I looked up to and wanted to be like.

And why didn’t you try bikes instead of cars?
LN: Before I had a go on a go-kart I had a motorbike – like the 50cc, the small one – and it was kind of fun, I liked it, but not that much. I would ride some times but it wasn’t like every day I wanted to get on it, just when it was a nice day I was like “oh, okay maybe I’ll go on the motorbike”. Yeah, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do.

How did you see guys like Lewis, Seb, because obviously those were the people you watched on TV – did that require some sort of a mindset change, or did you always see them as eventual competition?
LN: No, I never saw them as competition ’til I fell into formula 1. But you like watching, you like traits from them, whether it’s their driving style, or how they drive in qualifying, or how they drive in the race or their personality. You like little things about different drivers, but it wasn’t like always “what can I do to beat him when I’m in formula one?” – I didn’t know I could be in Formula 1 ’til…

When did you know?
LN: When I was confirmed!

You didn’t say to yourself back in 2016 or whenever: I’m gonna be a Formula 1 driver?
LN: No.

You said you watched Fernando against Lewis in 2007, how is it for you now to drive against Lewis?
LN: It’s weird! It’s weird thinking again how far away F1 would ever be, and then thinking straight to now “I’m in Formula 1” not really racing against Lewis, but we’re on the same track.

In Austria…
LN: In Austria, we did, very briefly, which was cool. Hopefully, I can do more of it! It’s cool because it’s not something I believed I could really do, then getting the opportunity now and thinking how amazing it was to maybe one day race them, and now here I am with McLaren – the team I was watching – with Carlos, racing Seb, racing Lewis, racing the drivers I kind of grew up watching. It’s weird but pretty important(?) at the same time.

And when you watched in 2007 whose side were you on, Fernando or Lewis?
LN: Lewis, because he was British.

Is the success he’s had breaking records something that’s on your mind as well?
LN: Not really, he joined McLaren when they were in a very different way. They could win races, now we can’t…

Not yet?
LN: Not yet! So it’s incomparable. You can’t compare, it’s a different situation so as much as one day I’d love to be able to achieve what he has, people are always in different situations in life. I’m in a different situation to what he was, so I’m not saying it’s impossible but it’s just incomparable, basically. You can compare “things” but him coming into Formula 1 when the car was good enough to win is very different to me coming in when they’re trying to get back to where they were when he was racing with them. So it’s just a very different situation to be in, you know, not winning races this year, maybe next year, or the year after – you know, it’s three years or something it’s going to take for us to get back to possibly winning races, not even a guarantee, it’s a chance – so then we’re ready four years after he was, so you just can’t compare it. But yeah, it’s something I hopefully can look forward to trying to do in the future.

Do you think you’re at McLaren at the right place at the right time?
LN: It’s hard to say… I’m happy where I am, but I still would’ve been happy even if I was with them last year. I wouldn’t be as happy, because we weren’t doing as well as we are this year, but I’d still be very happy I’m in Formula 1 with McLaren… This year is a better situation to be in than last year, but at the same time, I’m just happy to be in Formula 1 in the first place.

You have a German team principal now, how is it working together with him?
LN: It’s really good, he’s a very nice guy, and he’s already had a big impact on the team. A lot of people look up to him because they know what he’s done in the past with Porsche. I know a lot of people sort of saw Zak as the boss – and he was the boss – but Andreas is more the guy people go to now in terms of they want to change something here or they want to just change small things around in terms of changing the atmosphere of the whole team and making everyone work a little bit harder, and trying to get people those things to make them work that little bit harder. He’s a good guy and he’s already had a good impact on the team.

You’ve been saying obviously McLaren’s not winning right now…
LN: Yeah

But you’re still winning a little bit. You recently won the 24 Hours of Spa [iRacing], congratulations! It might have been virtual, but it’s still a win! How has that sim-racing experience been? Has that been sort of a release for you?
LN: It was cool. It was pretty tough, a lot of tough competitors. I’ve always been in to sim-racing, but to do it with Max, and the first 24-hour race I’d done as well so yeah, do something that’s not on-track, but still have the opportunity to fight for a win, even if it’s virtually doesn’t matter – a win’s a win, like you said – it’s still nice to do something different and still achieve something.

How did you get your start in sim-racing?
LN: Yeah, my dad had a PlayStation 2 with Gran Turismo. So that’s what I remember first playing. I got into simming playing games like that, just not on the simulator but the PlayStation, but times have moved on since then.

Does the simming help with preparation or is it more for fun?
LN: I do it more for fun. Preparation I do at McLaren on their simulator. You still learn things here and there when you’re having fun at home playing on the simulator, but it’s not I go on it just to learn about anything because I do GT3 and different cars compared to Formula 1.

And it’s not strange to have Max here as a rival and in sim racing as a teammate?
LN: No, I think we get along quite well. I’m not really racing him now so… hopefully in the future, that will change but, for now, we’re good friends.

Regarding the new regulations for 2021, what would you prefer? Smaller car? Lighter car? Etc…
LN: The simple thing is we need to be able to race more, and everyone be more even. That’s the most simple answer. That is done by having a lighter car, having a car which can follow other cars more efficiently, ones where the tyres work better and don’t just overheat as soon as you get anywhere close to someone.

McLaren confirm Norris and Sainz for 2020