F1 star Lando Norris talks racing his heroes and battling anxiety in the public eye

The youngest British Formula One driver offers an honest take on the challenges of racing

Third-place qualifier Lando Norris finished seventh at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Getty Images

Lando Norris is certainly driven, pun intended. At 22, he is the youngest-ever British Formula One driver, having signed with McLaren Racing in 2019. But in many ways he is also a regular Gen Z, who loves gaming – he recently launched his own platform called Team Quadrant – and spending days off "chilling at home" with friends.

Tipped as a future world champion, Norris started the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix final race, which concluded on Sunday, third on the grid just behind the pair battling it out for the title, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

Norris's rise has been spectacular by anyone’s standards. In 2014, he won the karting CIK-FIA World KF Championship, making him the youngest karting champion, and then scooped the MSA Formula championship in 2015. In 2016, he won the Toyota Racing Series, Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, and Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup, resulting in him being signed the following year to McLaren Racing as a junior driver. In 2018, he moved up to become the official test and reserve driver, and in 2019 made his Formula One debut at the Australian Grand Prix, finishing 12th. He was 19 at the time.

When The National spoke to Norris on Thursday, ahead of the finale, it became clear that while this experienced driver, who started karting at the age of 7, has ample talent, its been a steep learning curve when it comes to dealing with the pressures that go with racing.

McLaren driver Lando Norris at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 12. Getty Images

“It is very difficult to deal with,” Norris admits during our video interview. Sequestered in The Paddock at Yas Marina Circuit, Norris opens up about the struggles he has faced since entering the highest level of racing. “It is something you get a lot more used to, and can deal with a lot better with experience, but it affects me a lot, the pressure [of] many people watching you, the team who put in so much time and effort. You never want to let any of them down.”

Under the watchful eye of the media and the popularity of a sport that attracted 433 million viewers in 2020, Norris admits he has battled with depression and anxiety.

“I struggled a lot in my first year, but the second and third years were noticeably better. It feels weird to say this, but being in an F1 car is starting to feel normal, like everyday life. Whereas in my first year I felt so small in such a big world, now I feel [a] little bit bigger and a bit more comfortable.”

Lando Norris congratulates race winner and 2021 F1 World Drivers Champion Max Verstappen. Getty Images

Norris is now able to take a broader view even with the press, which can be brutally unforgiving at times. “I don’t care if certain people say this or think that. They can believe what they want to believe. I know that my team and the people it matters to are seeing and hearing the correct things.

“You have to know who your audience is, who cares and respects what you do. Obviously, you have some who always try and put you down, rather than bring you up, but you have to just ignore it.”

Coming into the sport so young means Norris had to face the dilemma of being pitted against the very drivers he idolised as a child. While challenging, he admits it has helped him understand a pattern of undervaluing his own talent.

“That is one of the things I have always struggled with, and not just in F1. There is this ladder, obviously, to get to F1, so every time I was in the category or series below, I would look at the people in the next one up and think: ‘Wow, they are so good. Am I ever going to be on the same level as them?'

“I always had that in my head. And then I would go up into that category, do well and win, and the realisation came that I can do this; I can race against them and I can beat them. And that’s the same in F1, just on a bigger scale.

At 22, Norris is the youngest British F1 driver and was the third-place qualifier at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Getty Images

“When I was in Formula Two, I never thought I was going to be able to race against Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel. I have looked up to them for 10, 15 years. Then suddenly I am here, racing them. But as soon as I got here, I realised I am here because I must be good enough, people have faith in me and see things in me. I realised if I just focus, I can gain enough confidence to even race against my heroes – and beat them.”

Mental pressure aside, racing also takes a physical toll on drivers. While the Formula One season may be steeped in glamour, it is also long and arduous, running from the opening Bahrain Grand Prix in March through to the closing race in Abu Dhabi in December, taking in about 20 countries en route.

Moving at huge speeds around impossibly tight corners, drivers must endure crushing g-force. The equation given to the Earth's gravity – g – is how we weigh mass, so even those with a rudimentary grasp of physics will understand that ensconced within a car with a top speed of 372.5 kilometres per hour (as clocked by Valtteri Bottas at the Mexican Grand Prix in 2016), drivers are subjected to 2 g-force (a pressure equivalent to double their weight) when accelerating, 5 g (five times their weight) when braking, and a brutal 6 g when cornering.

“G-force is one of the toughest, most physical things about racing cars. But it’s not something you can necessarily see watching a race on TV unless you understand how tight these corners are and how fast we are going.”

Norris talks to the media ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix final race. Reuters

Drivers also face extreme temperatures inside the car. “We have the engine and fuel tanks behind us that get very hot, and we are wearing multiple layers of fireproof [gear], so racing somewhere like Singapore or Saudi Arabia last week was very hot,” says Norris.

To have the stamina to race for more than 90 minutes, drivers must be in top physical condition. “There is a lot of training on my neck, my core, and a lot of running and cycling, and training the leg muscles, as I am hitting the brake pedal at almost double my weight. We are in the cars for such a long period and you need to be focused for every single second.”

Norris understands the importance of having the right team and is appreciative of the people around him. “We are like a family, we all just love doing what we do. We help each other and work together, which makes it easier and a lot more enjoyable. For me, it’s not just that I enjoy driving the cars, but I love everything out of the cars as well. Apart from trying to win and have good races, that’s the next important thing for me.”

Updated: December 14th 2021, 6:26 AM