Lando Norris has wasted no time putting into practice what he’s learned from working alongside a Formula 1 driver of Daniel Ricciardo’s calibre, implementing driving style lessons during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend that he believes helped to extract more of the potential of the McLaren-Mercedes MCL35M.
The 21-year-old admitted after the Bahrain Grand Prix that “I’m punishing myself for some of the things that I’m doing with the car” thanks to defaulting to a driving style that worked well for the McLaren in 2019-20.
But having seen that Ricciardo’s driving style was better suited to the 2021 car, Norris was able to adapt his approach to his advantage on his way to fourth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Norris qualified 0.047s behind Ricciardo, but passed his team-mate at Turn 4 on the first lap. He later overtook Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to earn fourth place, although the race pace comparison between Norris and Ricciardo was distorted by the diffuser damage suffered by the Australian when he was hit by Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri on lap four.
But Norris drove a strong race, pulling 10 seconds on Ricciardo in each of the second and third stints, and finished at the front of the midfield pack.
“There are some differences with the car this year with how you have to drive it,” said Norris when asked by The Race about his performance.
“How we’ve had to drive the car for the last two seasons is going away in a good way and I’m having to adjust.
“I feel like I was driving a bit too much like the past couple of years, especially in qualifying. That always has negative effects and it isn’t as good.
“I feel like I did a good job [in qualifying], but I’m punishing myself for some of the things that I’m doing with the car. After understanding some more [after qualifying], I felt like I was gaining in those areas that I was losing out on.
“Daniel did a good job. There were some things that he’s able to do better just because of his driving style. It’s something I need to adjust to and change more because the car is different this year.
“There’s room for improvement from my side, more in understanding how to drive this car – not just how to learn from Daniel.”
Norris has worked hard on adapting his driving in recent years. If you look back to the post-2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix test he talked of experimenting with his driving style as part of that process.
One aspect he has been working to improve on is dealing with understeer in the middle of corners.
While happy with hustling the at corner entry, albeit not to the extent of former McLaren team-mate Carlos Sainz who likes a very positive turn-in, to the point where he struggles more than many drivers if the rear end is not predictable and stable, Norris benefits from a strong front end mid-corner. This allows him to keep up the minimum speed while ensuring the necessary rotation is achieved.
In an interview with The Race at the end of last season, Norris explained how the dynamics of the car influenced the battle with Sainz.
“Carlos is quite a smooth driver, but quite an aggressive one,” said Norris. “He forced the car quite a bit, so when he doesn’t have the stability, that’s when he loses that bit of confidence.
“It’s a similar thing with me. If you don’t have that stability on entries, it hurts you when you feel like you can’t get a good flow through the whole corner. It impacts Carlos that little bit more.
“In certain corners, you really need entry stability. When you can’t do what you normally do, or want to do, then it becomes a problem. But there are certain corners and certain tracks where Carlos needs that little bit more stability on entry.
“I’m more the kind of guy who needs the front end in the middle of the corner to carry that little bit more corner speed, rather than forcing the car as much on the entries.”
So how might things have changed with Ricciardo in the car? Ricciardo is a fascinating case because while he does have a default style, which is to carry speed in aggressively on the brakes while still achieving the necessary rotation to keep the minimum speed up, he’s extremely effective at executing that style across a range of car dynamics.
He did take time to adapt to the Renault in early 2019 simply because he was asking for Red Bull-esque front-end grip, but once on top of it he was able to get the most from the Renault.
Given Norris mentioned that the Ricciardo driving style had benefits in the race, although also showed up in qualifying, it’s likely that it is related to the entry phase of the corner. Even if Ricciardo overcommits, he’s able to adjust without losing too much, something many drivers struggle to do.
If Sainz and Norris were at opposite ends of the spectrum in their entry-phase approach at times, Ricciardo perhaps represents a mid-point Norris can learn from.
Combine that with a car that is perhaps a little better-balanced in this regard, so less prone to a front or rear limitation in that type of corner and it’s possible Norris has absorbed the lessons of Ricciardo’s practice and qualifying performances to tweak his race approach. That could also have offered tyre management benefits.
We will need a larger sample set of race weekends to build up a more rounded picture of the real benefits Norris takes from being alongside Ricciardo.
But given the scale of the challenge he faces in taking on a proven top-liner of Ricciardo’s ability, it’s at least positive for the team and driver to see Norris actively working to incorporate the lessons from the other side of the garage into his evolving skillset as an F1 driver.