Even if you've got a different Formula 1 team jersey in your closet, it's hard to root against McLaren driver Lando Norris. Norris joined McLaren as a test driver in 2017, when he was just 19, and took his first on-grid start as a McLaren driver in 2019. At age 24, he's got four years and 13 podium finishes, but he's still chasing his first win, and his public persona is a charismatic mix of self-deprecating good humor draped over a focused hunger for success. We had the chance to sit down with Norris at the 2023 Velocity Invitational, where he was helping debut the special McLaren 750S "Triple Crown" edition and getting some track time in McLaren's amazing collection of vintage F1 and Can-Am cars ahead of the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix.
Car and Driver: All of my co-workers said, "You've got to ask him about golf," but I don't know anything about golf. So imagine that I've asked you a really clever and fun and smart question about golf.
Lando Norris: The question should be, "Do you find many similarities between your sport of Formula 1 and golf?"
That's a great question. I've just asked you that.
[Laughing] Good question. Yes, I do find a lot of similarities. A lot more from the mental side than, of course, from the physical side of it. Every shot is like a corner. You can make mistakes there and you want to be perfect. Every time you get frustrated, it's about how you can bounce back and make up for it in the next shot or the next corner.
Have you gotten to a point with golf where you're finding it as emotional and frustrating as driving?
Almost more with golf! When you hit a bad shot you have to think about it for the whole time until you get to the ball, wherever it is. Whereas with racing, you don't have that.
What if your golf cart was faster?
That would help. But golf is just more of a patient game. There's a lot less adrenaline. I'm sure when you get to competitions on the highest level, there's adrenaline and all of that rush, but in racing, you do a corner, you have a second or sometimes less to forget about it and concentrate on the next one.
Is there any specific technique that you learned in golf that you have also applied in the car or vice versa?
Practice. Such a simple one. Yeah, practice. I hate being bad at things. With racing I've spent so much time doing it. I've not really done much other stuff. Golf is the first thing outside of racing that I've really tried to get into. I guess because I've grown up in racing and that's been my everyday thing. Do anything every day and almost naturally you'll become better at it. But you forget about that whole journey, especially by the time you get to the top or where we are now. Whereas when you are new into a sport like I am with golf, you have to start from the very bottom, and then you realize how patient you have to be about putting in the hours. And because you're good at one thing, you suddenly believe... at least I suddenly believe I should be good at other things, because if someone else does it, I feel like there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to do it. But of course, there are reasons why they're so good. And a lot of that is time and practice. That's not an excuse for being bad, but golf has reminded me of how much time and practice you have to put in to be good at anything.
Your F1 career has pretty much entirely happened under the spotlight of Drive to Survive. Do you feel that's affected your experience, or F1 in general?
I think my first few years, 2019, 2020, Netflix wasn't that big of a part of it. It definitely helped Formula One grow, but it was more something on the side, whereas now, it's almost a reason people watch Formula One. At times, it feels like it's turned into entertainment and a show rather than just an outright sport. We don't do what we do because we want to put on a show. It's not the reason I do it. I do it just to beat the other guy, to try and beat the other guys and to win. I don't do it so it looks good on camera. That's one of the only negative things about it. I don't want people to see [Drive to Survive] and think we go out there just to put on a show, because you don't do that in any other sports. If you go back to the old days, that was the opposite. That was as raw and as emotional as it gets. But times obviously change, so I'm not complaining in any way.
Well, that leads very well into the next question, which is: If there was a time period that you could go back and race in, what would you choose?
I'll just go back to the Senna era, just because I think the cars looked amazing, the sport was spectacular. Incredible drivers, a lot of risk. More knowledge of risk of life. Whereas now, you don't have the knowledge of it until it happens. I think back then you had the knowledge that it's kind of almost…not likely, but it's a lot higher chance. You knew that someone might die at some point. Which is a scary thought, honestly.
I just saw the new Ferrari movie. That's all about that early '60s time period where it seemed there wasn't ever a race where drivers didn't die.
Yeah, exactly. It was just a very different time, a very different mentality and attitude needed. It would just be great to see that and to experience it and to feel that. And also, the cars back then were amazing. That's one of the ones I drove in Goodwood. One of Senna's cars.
How did it feel?
It's tough. Goodwood, it's not like the racetrack. You're not on the limit. You're not feeling what it's like. It feels a lot tighter inside the car, but anything above your shoulders is outside. It feels like a go cart. You feel very vulnerable. You don't think that when you're driving, you're in the zone, you're in the mood. But I think especially now, because we know how times have changed, when you look at a car, you think it's made of a bit of plastic here and there, and you can see the guy's shoulders and there's no HANS device. That's just a crazy thought. But at the same time, we have the halo now. And now you think like, wow, the halo has saved lives but I also raced without the halo for many years, and it was weird when they introduced the halo. We were like, what the hell is this?
That's how they felt in the '70s about seatbelts.
Exactly. There are always these evolutions where you're like, What the hell is this? But then it turns out to be one of the best things ever.
There's much less likelihood of fatal accidents now, which is fantastic. But you guys are dealing with something that they never did, which is the long-term effects of these incredibly high forces on your bodies. I've seen you talk about how you've already got back problems. Earlier you were talking with [retired F1 and endurance racer] Derek Bell, who is in his 80s. Do you think about how you'll feel when you're his age?
I don't. I think the way you have to think about it is by not thinking about it. You do what you can in the moment, but I don't think 10, 20 years ahead. If my trainer says, 'This can have long-term effects,' then of course you take it more seriously. So I've had to up my training quite a bit more to cope with some of my back issues. They're not all to do with racing. People struggle with different things, and a lot of things can go wrong with a back and can limit a lot of things as soon as it's not working correctly. So, it's a very important thing to be on top of. But apart from that, I don't think of it. I enjoy my youth. I enjoy just being able to go out and do things and wake up the next day and more often than not feel like nothing's happened and just experience a new day.
(shrugging apologetically) I know. I have more and more people telling me those times change. In a way, you don't want to think about the future, but at the same time you do, because you want to make sure you're still able to get around and do things that you love to do when you're 50, 60, 70 and so on.
Let's go the other direction. You started racing, or driving, at about six years old. What prompted that?
I started on horse riding, really, when I was three. I didn't have any choice. I got made to go on a horse and I didn't enjoy it mainly because I was scared of heights. And at three years old, that's like being on top of a building!
A full horse or a pony?
I mean, I'm sure it was a pony, but it felt like a horse at the time. I got into racing through dirt and off-road and rally. I loved all of that stuff, the dirt crazy stuff. The first guy I loved as a kid was [World Rally champion] Richard Burns. The first model car I had was Richard Burns. I used to make all the little models. I got into quad biking first. I had a little quad bike when I was four, and I really loved it. But my dad sold it because he said it was too dangerous. But he told me it got stolen. That was the end of that.
When did you find out that he had sold it?
Probably only a few years ago, but not anytime when I was a kid. But apparently, it was a lot safer to be on a motorbike. So then I started on motocross bikes. Off-road and dirt, and we had some fields. I started to watch videos about it. Eventually I got into MotoGP and started to support Valentino [Rossi]. And I think supporting Valentino was almost the kickstarter of it all. That really got me into watching racing every weekend and watching motorsport at the same time, not just motorbikes. And that kind of had an evolution into watching different types of car racing and Formula One, and I loved watching Formula One, but I still thought motorbikes were the coolest. But then we went to watch a karting race, just a local place. I wanted to have a go. I was six at the time. And as soon as I tried a go-kart, I fell in love with doing that. It wasn't like I jumped in and was that good. I was pretty shocking when I started, but I just really enjoyed it. I was in more control than how I felt on a motocross bike. And I love that. I love to be in control. I hate the opposite. I hate to be not in control. I hate going around a racetrack being a passenger. That scares the hell out of me. It's not that I don't have faith in the people that I'm with.
More often than not, I don't have faith in the people I'm with. But I also just hate to be not the one in control.
Would you change that, though, if you could bring someone back from the past and ride with them?
Oh, 100 percent. I mean, these guys, any of them, whether it's like Hunt or Rossi or Senna, or...
I wouldn't ride with Hunt.
I would love to. I think it would just be an insane experience, but, yeah, these are the things that no one else would get to experience. They would be the best.
The go-karting, at that point, were you no longer into rally or is it just that karting was a straight line to open-wheel racing?
I think the more I got into go-karting, the more I got into single seaters and car racing, the more I got into watching Formula 1 and just having the knowledge that Formula 1 was the top, that kind of just took over any of the thoughts of what I wanted to do. Even now, I would still love to do rally and stuff like that.
Have you had a chance to try many other forms of racing?
I did the Daytona 24 Hours with Zak [Brown]. Not with him driving, thankfully, but I did it with his team in 2018 with [Fernando] Alonso and Phil [Hanson]. And I really, really enjoyed it, because it's different. I've grown up racing and all I've done is single seaters. I did my holiday in Finland at the beginning of the year, and I went out in a WRC2 car, but in snow, and for me, that's the scariest. But the feeling I get when I'm thinking, 'Damn, I'm about to crash,' but there's this little bridge of being in control, that little moment of not really knowing if you're in control or if you're out of control. That is a very scary little phase, but it's the one which makes your heart race more than anything. And it's one you rarely feel. Rare for many people in the world to feel it at all but with rallying, you're like, there all the time. Going into a corner facing the wrong way, it was just crazy. I have even more respect for the kind of guys who do it. But I just love and respect all of it. So I do want to do more things at some point. But of course, I know my goal is with McLaren and F1.
Yeah, you've got some things that still need to happen.
I know that you have done a lot of sim racing, and you did do a simulated 24 Hours of Le Mans?
Not Le Mans. Spa.
Would you ever want to do that in real life?
100 percent I want to do Le Mans.
Who would you want on your team?
I don't care. As long as we win. Who would I want? I think Le Mans is the kind of thing where you don't need the three best drivers in the world to win. You just need three sensible drivers.
Are you a sensible driver or would you just have two sensible drivers and you?
Yeah, probably that second one. Zak [Brown] and Valentino [Rossi] for my team. I think you can just have a fun group, and you can just share the experience of it all. I would love to try and win it at some point, but also to try and just forget about winning sometimes and just go out and have fun and share it with some cool people.
Car shopping advice: Minivans, cool or not cool?
Oh, cool, yeah, awesome.
Trucks or hot hatches?
[After some discussion of the definition of hot hatches]
Truck. Throw your friends in the back.
Best McLaren that isn't your F1 car.
765LT. But I think you can enjoy different ones for different reasons. I think you can enjoy the P1 because it's a P1. You can enjoy the Elva because it's batshit crazy. But 765 is the perfect combination of being still crazy fast, lightweight. Feels like a race car anyway.
Top five cars in your garage.
Fiat Jolly. Jolly is my favorite. 765, Cobra, not an original, but 427, burn your leg every time you get out, Miura, one of the most beautiful cars in the world. Full stop. Something I just got is a Defender. Like the old Defender, no roof, nothing. So just all open six-seater.
Last one. Have you started your Christmas shopping, and what are you getting your sisters?
I start Christmas shopping after Christmas because everything's on sale. I just delay it to the next year. I'm still doing last year's Christmas presents.
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