Lando Norris cannot recall Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One debut. He is too young, having been just seven when the Briton announced his arrival on the world stage in 2007. But he is now touted as this country’s next track star.
A significant part of that journey will start with this week’s announcement that the 17-year-old racing driver from Glastonbury, Somerset, will be McLaren’s reserve driver next season, replacing Jenson Button.
Eleven and a half years have passed since Hamilton was interviewed by this newspaper in the same building where Norris now sits — the space-age, dust-free, dehumanised grandeur of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.
17-year-old Lando Norris is preparing to start his F1 career as a reserve driver for McLaren
Hamilton was a little older, then 21, and kitted out in the team’s sponsor-laden kit. Even all those years ago, he spoke almost mystically about Ayrton Senna being ‘the man’, adding: ‘That’s what I want to be, the man.’
It was an unforgettably powerful verbal display of intent.
Norris, the Formula Three champion and a member of McLaren’s young driver academy who is about to race in F1’s feeder series Formula Two, as he dovetails his F1 reserve duties, is different in style: understated and he fiddles with his hands as he talks.
The Brit is the Formula Three champion and a member of McLaren’s young driver academy
He is wearing ‘home clothes’ of a round-neck jumper and dark jeans. He is well-mannered (not that Hamilton wasn’t), though those who know Lando say his will to win is fierce and that when he loses he is quietly fuming with himself.
He is not a helmet-thrower, though.
Indeed, when I ask him what has set him apart from his contemporaries during his young career of unbroken success, he says: ‘I am probably more determined to win than the other guys.’
That was apparent when he won the World Karting Championship at the age of 14, a year younger than when Hamilton achieved the same feat. His Formula Three title this year came with two races to spare.
Norris says he looks up to Lewis Hamilton but does not idolise his fellow British driver
None of this was any surprise to those wise old heads who noted one of his bravura performances in the wet at Norfolk’s Snetterton 18 months ago — a virtuoso act of handling and fearlessness that is already a little bit of motor racing folklore.
Nothing, other than their preternatural talent, links Hamilton’s background and Norris’s. Hamilton’s upbringing included a spell on a council estate.
Norris’s businessman father Adam’s wealth is estimated in hundreds of millions, comfortably enough to send Lando to the fee-paying Millfield School in Somerset.
But it is not right to think that Norris has had it all easy. Yes, daddy’s cash is a near prerequisite for motor-racing hopefuls, but it takes sacrifices to get to the very top.
To this end, Norris left school three years ago, when his travelling commitments became too onerous for lessons.
Norris, who left school three years ago, comes from a very different background to Hamilton
He had a private tutor but his testing (in racing cars rather than on paper) got in the way of his exam schedule and he missed them. He does not have a GCSE to his name, yet his understanding of the minutiae of his machinery is very precise indeed.
‘I enjoyed having mates at school and sometimes I miss them now,’ said Norris, who has an elder brother and two younger sisters. ‘But I prefer racing at the end of the day.’
Make that the night, too, for he spends up to 14 hours on a simulator at home, pitting himself against all-comers online, often extending his obsession into the early hours.
Racing, racing, racing — a way of life that started when he graduated from riding horses to owning a motorbike aged six, and a kart aged seven.
Norris won the World Karting Championship at 14, a year younger than Hamilton
His first sporting hero was Valentino Rossi, the charismatic MotoGP legend, ‘the guy I always watched and looked up to’. As for Hamilton, Norris appears more admiring than awestruck.
‘I don’t know Lewis,’ he said. ‘He was at the FIA awards at the end of last year so I saw him there, but we didn’t speak. I did speak to Sebastian Vettel, though. He made time for me and we spent five or 10 minutes chatting. It was kind of him to do that.’
Vettel was not to know then that Norris would be second behind him in the teenager’s first F1 test at the Hungaroring in August, a ringing statement of ability if ever there was one.
Soon Norris will be rubbing shoulders with McLaren’s two race drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, and will race alongside Alonso in the Daytona 24-hour race in January.
The 17-year-old spends up to 14 hours practicing online on a simulator at home
Before then comes a two-day Formula One test in Brazil following Sunday’s Grand Prix. Eyes will follow the Briton with the unusual Christian name — his mother simply liked it, he explained, and is nothing to do with being named after a Star Wars character.
He will carry around the tag of being the next Lewis Hamilton. Is that a burden? ‘It is cool to think about that sometimes,’ he said.
‘I look up to Lewis as a very good driver, and he is especially quick in qualifying. I support him because he is British, but he is not an idol to me. I try to do well and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.’