Daniel Ricciardo was inevitably the star attraction at McLaren’s launch this week given he’s the team’s new arrival, but team-mate Lando Norris really won’t have needed reminding that he’s now up against one of Formula 1’s proven stars.
He faces a tough challenge in matching, let alone beating, Ricciardo but has given some hints of what he needs to do to achieve what will undoubtedly be his goal.
For the past two years, Norris stacked up well compared to previous team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr but ultimately was the junior partner.
Now, with two seasons of F1 experience under his belt and the advantage of being the incumbent driver at McLaren, Norris will have to up his game to a new level to avoid being cast as support act to Ricciardo.
Inevitably, Norris has been asked repeatedly about his expectations for this battle and there will be many more questions to come.
Despite their friendly relationship, this is a tantalising match-up between two competitors whose amiable, freewheeling demeanours belie intense competitiveness. And both will want to outperform the other, which is one of the fundamental characteristics of all pairs of team-mates in F1.
When asked about his objectives when it comes to taking on Ricciardo, Norris replied: “I don’t have an exact answer just for that yet, but I’m sure it’s going to be basically every area where he’s pushing me and hopefully I’ll be pushing him too so that’s the aim.
“I’m going to wait until pre-season testing and race one to set clear targets. I think the main one really is to start how we ended the year because I felt like I was on a much better foot, a lot more confident.
“I was performing well in terms of my driving and how I was working with my engineers, not relying upon the other side, that kind of thing.
“Just making our own way and working for ourselves, and that worked very well at the end of last year. Starting how we ended last year is probably the main target and just coming out the box strong in 2021.”
They key words here are “not relying upon the other side”. This could be at the heart of Norris ensuring he doesn’t fall into a de facto support role.
Alongside Sainz, Norris was the rookie and inevitably lacked the range of experience the Spaniard did when it came to feedback and car set-up direction.
Norris has worked hard to up his technical game over the past couple of years and is no longer the newcomer. In that regard, Sainz’s departure couldn’t have come at a better time as it means Norris, while inevitably giving away to Ricciardo here, has now got enough experience to assert himself.
While he performed well last season, as reflected by being ranked 10th in The Race’s top 10 F1 drivers of 2020, he was inconsistent. By his own admission, there was a stint in the middle of the season when he struggled. He links that period to his struggles to get on top of a car that was a little more front-limited, particularly mid-corner, which is the balance Sainz tends towards given he struggles with rear-end instability.
Ricciardo has a relatively broad skillset when it comes to adapting to the car dynamics, but does lean towards the natural direction of a slightly understeery set-up to ensure the rear tyres are protected on race stints.
He also tends to carry speed into the corner, attacking the entries but not as aggressively as some drivers, with keeping the minimum speed up mid-corner key to his style.
“Abu Dhabi was a perfect way to end last year, both in qualifying and the race – which was not perfect but was extremely well done from my side and I was very happy with how I ended,” said Norris.
“But there was more of a rough patch in the middle where, from a qualifying perspective, I struggled a little bit more. And that was just with my confidence in the car and not setting up the car quite as much as I wanted.
“With the developments over the season, you have to drive the car in a slightly different way, and it just made it a bit harder. It wasn’t as optimised for how I drive the car.
“Towards the end of the season we biased it more back to what I want in terms of having some more confidence in the car again. So we, a team with my engineers, are understanding but also in my second season that’s less obvious compared to year one to know what to improve.
“There’s a large amount of smaller things, so I’m already working on the similar data in the F3 test I did a few days ago. I’m just trying to work on those, but I’m just that little bit more confident again that I can go into this season knowing what I really want and knowing what I want in the car. That will bring the performance from my side and as a team.”
This doesn’t mean Norris will disregard what Ricciardo is doing, merely that he has the confidence and the knowledge to ensure he doesn’t get swept up in the direction the Australian chooses.
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) February 16, 2021
Norris has also been working hard at eliminating his weaknesses behind the wheel. As long ago as the 2019 post-Abu Dhabi test he talked about driving style experiments, so he’s also improving his capacity to deal with certain car limitations.
The key will be taking on board Ricciardo’s direction in key areas such as tyre management, an area where he excels. Norris has certainly reached a good level in this area, but while Ricciardo is often celebrated for his qualifying pace his capacity to extract performance throughout a race stint is second-to-none.
This means Norris can also learn some of the tricks and techniques employed by Ricciardo, and potentially the set-up compromises he needs to achieve this.
It’s a big ask for Norris, who is a driver with prodigious ability and enormous potential. But given Ricciardo has confirmed he’s on a three-year deal with McLaren and hopes to have his long-awaited shot at the world championship during his time there, Norris has to leave no stone unturned to ensure he compares well to Ricciardo.
As Esteban Ocon will tell you, taking on Ricciardo in the same team is tough. If Norris is to make this work and fulfil his potential, what’s critical is that he capitalises on his experience with the team to hit the ground running.