It has not been easy for Lando Norris to stay match fit during lockdown. While footballers have been able to run and golfers have had the luxury of playing rounds for more than a month, it’s rather hard for a Formula One driver to practice.
Driving was never completely outlawed during the strictest period of the UK’s lockdown, but it’s one thing to drive to the local supermarket for essential supplies and another to top 200mph in an F1. So how does a racing driver remain sharp?
Most drivers resorted to the well-documented eSports series that filled the four-month gap while F1 was on hold, but last month most teams were able to return to the track and test for the first time since February. Most, except for one.
McLaren had something of an unusual issue in that because of their switch at the start of 2019 from Honda to Renault power units, they were somewhat limited with enough engines to warrant testing. Use of this year’s power unit is outlawed by F1 restrictions, and with Honda now committed to Red Bull and Alpha Tauri, the wait for Norris and teammate Carlos Sainz went on.
Desperate to get back behind the wheel, Norris called on some old friends in the form of Carlin, the team who has helped bring him through the ranks since his 2015 MSA Formula Championship campaign. An open test session at Silverstone enabled the 20-year-old to at least familiarise himself back at racing speeds, albeit in a Formula Three, and the experience was not quite what he expected.
“It felt quite weird the first time I turned the engine on,” Norris says. “I’ve spent so much time on a simulator now and you start the engine and you just hear noise, but you don’t feel any vibrations or anything.
“You drive similar cars every now and then and you start to get used to it, whereas now jumping into a real car and the whole car vibrates and you get the sensation of a racing engine in your car, it felt really weird and I almost didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good at all, my out lap I was doing because of all the vibrations and everything I felt almost sick because it just felt so weird.
“But after a couple of laps you start pushing and getting on the limit and the adrenaline starts to kick in, and it all starts to feel more normal. It was nice to be back, it was good to be able to push the car to the limit and slide and try and drive as fast as you can, and I have missed it a bit over the last few months. I know it’s still not an F1 car, but just to be able to drive a Formula Three car on the limit at Silverstone as well, was nice. I still think just dropping into a Formula One car even after driving a Formula Three car is going to feel even more abnormal and I think it’s been good for me and my body to get used to driving a car again, but it’s still going to be a decent step to drive an F1 car.”
However, what pleased Norris was the fact that it did not take long to get back up to speed.
“I felt like I could push the car and be fairly close to the limit within a few laps,” Norris adds. “Although it didn’t feel normal and felt weird, within a few laps in terms of getting up to speed and being able to push the car to the limit, I felt like we - and I say this for all drivers - can pretty much do that instantly.
“We can go out and it might feel weird but you can push the car and we find what the limit is very quickly. The more physical side of it and the mental side of it is going to be the tougher challenge. We’ve got to go to Austria and do FP1 and it’s going to take a few laps, but probably not much more for us to jump in and start pushing and do quick laps times again and so on. I don’t think the speed part is the difficult part, I think it’s everything else with the mental side which is going to be the more tricky part of it.”
This morning Norris finally gets back to the real thing as the heavily-delayed 2020 season begins in Austria. The list of why the campaign will feel unlike any other before it is too long to list, but for Norris there are two in particular.
The first is the fact that his teammate will not be his teammate for long. During F1’s enforced hiatus, Sebastian Vettel’s surprise Ferrari exit, to occur at the end of the year, triggered an early driver merry-go-round that saw Carlos Sainz land a coveted place with the Scuderia and the more established Daniel Ricciardo end up with Norris at McLaren. That a driver can go from McLaren to Ferrari will be a welcome sight for Norris, but the arrival of former Red Bull star Ricciardo next season will up the ante considerably.
For now, he has no control over the matter, though while McLaren have pledged their allegiance by both drivers this season, they would be foolish not to back the man who is sticking with them next season if faced by such a scenario.
The second is something that Norris can have an influence over right now. As important as natural ability this season will be mental flexibility, with those drivers who are able to adapt the quickest likely to reap the biggest rewards.
An unknown for all drivers on the grid will be the process of racing on consecutive weekends in Austria and Britain, with further back-to-back races being discussed for Bahrain and Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. Drivers who have a bad weekend one race will have to show the mental resilience to put it out of their minds and bounce back the following week, while it also becomes much harder to topple a strong outfit if the track and conditions remain exactly the same.
F1 plans to try and vary this by mixing up tyre compounds, but the likelihood is that if a car is fast at a certain track on a soft tyre, it will be fairly quick on a hard tyre too.
Rather than looking at the consecutive weekends from a negative point of view, Norris believes that McLaren have enough optimism to take the more positive approach: a strong weekend is more likely to be followed by another strong weekend.
“How it plays on a driver’s mind, maybe if you have a really bad weekend in weekend one, how they bounce back straight away in the second weekend and make the most of a second opportunity instead of going to a different track,” he says.
“It might kind of suck if you’re slow in the first weekend. You’ll think in the first weekend ‘we’re not going to another track, we’re going to the same one and it’s going to be just as difficult again next week’. I guess that’s going to be the bad thing, but if you’re really quick and you win, you’re going to feel really confident and that’s a positive.
“I don’t think it should affect us too much in our mentality of how we approach both weekends just because there’s two in a row. I think we’ll hope it works and do our best, and if you crash or have a really good race in the first one I don’t think it affects really how we’ll approach the second one.”
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