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Lando Norris: The British teenager set to make Formula One history

There were no tears or hysterical celebrations for Lando Norris on the most significant Sunday yet of his yo...

Posted: Nov. 2, 2018 12:39 PM
Updated: Nov. 2, 2018 12:39 PM

There were no tears or hysterical celebrations for Lando Norris on the most significant Sunday yet of his young life, just inner contentment at a childhood ambition achieved. Perhaps it should be of no surprise that a teenager who spends his time racing at body-rattling speeds kept his cool when told he was to become the youngest Formula One driver in British history.

"It was a good moment," says the 18-year-old of the day he learned he would be on the grid next year in McLaren's orange livery as part of an elite band of 20 elite racing drivers.

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Lando Norris

It had been a relatively ordinary race weekend for Norris at September's Italian Grand Prix, until he was called into the boss' office.

The Briton, not 19 until November 13, had completed his duties as McLaren's test and reserve driver. His performance in what was just his second F1 practice sessions, in wet conditions, showcasing his speed and ability.

"I was just about to get in the car to head to the airport after the weekend and Zak called me," Norris remembers of the meeting that will inevitably change his life, even if, the teenager insists, much has remained the same since the deal made headlines.

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Zak Brown is McLaren's chief executive, a man who has described Norris as an "immense talent," anointing the prodigious Englishman as the racer to help the team rebuild and become the force it was a decade or so ago, when winning titles -- not languishing towards the back of the grid -- was routine.

Norris has already passed an early test. Once told he would replace Stoffel Vandoorne, a driver eight years his senior, next season Norris proved he was capable of keeping a secret. Not even his mum, Cisca, was told he was to become McLaren's next boy-king until the morning of the official announcement.

"The first guys I was allowed to tell was my manager and trainer because they pretty much get to know everything," Norris explains.

"They were the only two guys I was allowed to tell. It was a bit weird that I couldn't say too much to anyone, but it was obviously a nice feeling inside.

"I then told my dad, he was allowed to know because I had to sign the contract and he was present for that, but even my mum I wasn't allowed to say anything to. She was a bit annoyed I didn't tell her earlier but that's the way it was."

Norris' mum cried the morning he told her that the next stage of his journey to racing stardom was about to begin. Tears were shed for the countless childhood weekends spent away from home, for the hard work, the dedication, and the dreams her son had already achieved.

"I've been away since I was pretty much eight, traveling to the car tracks, and then going to Europe and traveling more," says Norris, a veteran of seven different junior motorsport categories and a champion in three, including becoming the youngest champion of the prestigious European Formula Three series in 2017.

"Then having to do more things; more meetings, more media days, and eventually move out to my own place. I've been away from my mum a lot, but she's always been there to support me."

Norris is close to his family. He travels to races with his father, Adam, once a talented road cyclist with ambitions of competing in the Tour de France before making his millions in investment banking. There is an older brother, Oli, who sells simulators, the eldest of his younger sisters, Flo, a talented horse rider, and another sister, also called Cisca, who is still at school.

His father, Norris says, has been the biggest influence on his career, for both his financial and emotional support. "He brought me to the Kart track after school when I was young," he says. "He got me into racing and he's supported me ever since. He's the reason I'm here now."

It was a family decision to allow the 16-year-old Norris to leave school, the independent Millfield in Somerset, to focus on his racing. Giving up the classroom was an easy decision for a boy who openly admits he was not a scholar, but leaving behind his friends was the biggest sacrifice he has had to make.

"I never enjoyed school and I was never that good at school so leaving wasn't the biggest thing, but the social aspect of school, leaving your friends, you lose contact with them a bit and now I have more friends at the race track than the friends I keep in touch with at school," says Norris, reflecting on the cost of making it onto the grid.

"That's one of the biggest things. Never being home, always traveling, having different interests and focusing on different things, just the time aspect of going back home and seeing them, you don't have that at all. It was a big sacrifice but, at the end of the day, it was worth it."

Speaking over the phone during the US Grand Prix weekend, Norris' answers are considered, there is no hint of self-importance. His Twitter feed is full of gifs and witty remarks, just like any normal teenager's account would be. The prospect of making history has not turned a young man's head.

He currently lives in a shared flat in Guildford, an English town an hour or so from London, with Formula Three driver Sacha Fenestraz. In his first news conference after McLaren had announced he would be climbing into their seat, Norris said he had no plans yet to relocate to the glitz and glamor, and of course the favorable tax system, of Monaco where many past and present F1 drivers reside.

"Given the team's current state, they are in need of more help than they ever have been, and I will help them as much as I can rather than having a nice life in Monaco," he told assembled reporters.

Life, however, has been lived at top speed these last few months as Norris combines F1 and F2 -- where he is currently third in the overall standings -- and squeezes in the proliferation of media interviews. "It was pretty crazy," says Norris of the weeks following McLaren's announcement in September.

"In karting, in the European races, you have the cameras and the film crews and you do interviews. At around 13 I'd already started doing bit of media and it just increases more and more with every level you take, especially when you get into cars -- and when you hit F1 it's an even higher step up. It's something you get used to over time. It's part of the job."

Inevitably, parallels have been drawn with five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. "I would say in 95% of interviews I get asked about Lewis Hamilton," he says without a sign of exasperation.

The comparisons are perhaps unavoidable. Hamilton was also an English F1 star-in-waiting who learned his trade under McLaren's umbrella, though Hamilton made his F1 debut in 2007 in a more competitive car. Yet, for all the similarities, their upbringings were polar opposites. Hamilton grew up in a council house in Stevenage, while Norris's father has made a $255 million fortune in financial services.

Norris has not asked his fellow Briton for advice ahead of next year. Instead, he has been learning from McLaren's Fernando Alonso, the two-time world champion who will retire at the end of the season.

The pair first worked together during Daytona 24 in January, where they shared one of the cars run by Brown's United Autosports team.

READ: F1 races more emotional since announcing retirement -- Alonso

"I hadn't really worked with Fernando in any F1 races so we weren't as close as we are now," says Norris of Daytona, where he outpaced the rest of the field during a stint in the wet at night.

"That was my first experience of being his teammate. It was a good insight into seeing the effort and what he's capable of in terms of pushing a team and helping everyone around him.

"I'd say the biggest thing is how much effort he puts into everything, how much he prepares -- looking at the data, video, before every race weekend -- the hard work he puts into every weekend even though he's not fighting for wins.

"He still seems as motivated as ever. You really see what he's made of. There's bits he's helped me on and advised me on, but I've never asked what help he could give me next year."

Alonso has also been complimentary of Norris, saying after Daytona: "The things he did were very impressive. The team work, the preparation, the focus."

While Alonso's time in the sport is nearly up, next season Norris will be among a new wave of talents hoping to make a mark in the big league. What would constitute a good debut season? He is yet unsure.

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"It's hard to say what I want to achieve next season," he says.

"Overall, I just want it to be a good, solid season, just a good start to what I hope will be my career in Formula One.

"There's obviously some goals here and there that I want to hit. There's always one, beating a teammate, trying to get to the top five, or a podium, but apart from that no real big goal. I think we have to wait until next season."

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