F1’s most self-doubting driver on his battle to belong - The Race
Formula 1

F1’s most self-doubting driver on his battle to belong

Aug 10 2021
By Scott Mitchell-Malm

Lando Norris is sometimes “afraid” to be confident. Earlier in his Formula 1 career he had quite strong doubts about himself and his place on the grid. Some of his comments, past and present, even reflect the challenges of ‘imposter syndrome’, whereby a high achieving person doubts their ability or their achievements.

The 21-year-old is no imposter. Through his unstoppable rise up the single-seater ladder and in his two-and-a-half year grand prix career he has proven himself more than worthy of occupying an F1 seat. Now, amid a mesmerisingly good 2021 season – one in which Norris has won fresh plaudits almost every week – the man himself seems to finally believe it.

“It’s definitely helped a lot,” Norris says when asked by The Race about the impact of his sensational 2021 season in the context of his previous doubts.

“My confidence level through a lot of different scenarios this season has definitely gone up, and it’s been very good for me. Especially after the first couple of races it already took a good step, because I did well in qualifying, I did well in the races, which gave me that big confidence booster.

“There’s these little things along the way which kind of add to it. Austria [where Norris fought with the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas] was another thing which just added to that confidence, that allowed me to think, ‘OK I can do this, and I can do that, and I can have that belief in myself and that confidence in myself’.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

“I’m afraid to have it in a situation that I’ve never been in before. So, when you experience these different things and you kind of confirm to yourself that you’re capable of doing something, then I can add it to my bank, and it adds to that confidence.”

Norris speaks so lucidly of the importance of confidence it leaves no doubt that any self-confessed doubt, whether from two years ago or now, is genuine.

Playing down expectations is becoming an increasingly common approach from drivers, but Norris’s questions are no act.

“You always keep learning more and more but you get to a point when all this confidence is kind of building up to being in the position where there’s no like massive ladder you still need to climb to get into Formula 1 or whatever,” he says.

“You’re there. And that’s where you need the confidence.

“Then it’s about bringing it all together and having that confidence to perform exactly at the top level that you need to be performing at.

Aug 09 : Engine suspicions and F1 performance swings

“Things are coming together this season. There’s still some things I’m not super confident in myself in but compared to last season, compared to my first race in Formula 1, it’s a completely different level and I feel much better about it.”

Who wouldn’t, with the season he’s having? Norris enters the summer break third in the championship, only behind title contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. He’s beating a Mercedes and a Red Bull on merit.

Lando F1 Averages

He’s scored three podiums and could easily have a couple more, maybe even in the Hungarian Grand Prix had he not been rear-ended by Valtteri Bottas – an incident that ended Norris’s 100% point-scoring record this season.

However, Norris’s step as a driver came before 2021. He believes he is driving no better than at the end of 2020, when he rounded off a strong finish with an excellent best-of-the-rest race in Abu Dhabi.

“I ended the season very well and in a comfortable spot, where I was feeling very good, feeling on top of the car, feeling on top of myself and the team and everything,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s like I’ve just come into this season and then taken a step up. Throughout last season I was just putting it all together, still finding my place and my way to be most confident about myself and the way I drive and things like that.

“I put it together especially for the last couple of races, and especially in Abu Dhabi. My Abu Dhabi performance was exactly the same as all of my best performances from this season.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Qualifying Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

It’s easy to simply state Norris is having his best season, though, when there’s a combination of ‘driver being better than ever’ and ‘team making constant progress’ such as this.

Arguably more impressive than those headline numbers, though, is the area Norris believes he has improved most: his consistency.

In his first two seasons in F1 Norris started brightly but those campaigns developed erratically. It’s a common occurrence among inexperienced drivers who have impressive peaks but lack consistency.

Calculating the standard deviation in Norris’s qualifying and race results over the last three seasons illustrates that beautifully. This measurement shows the amount of variation in the numbers. The lower the standard deviation, the closer Norris tends to get to his ‘expected’ result.

Lando Increasing Consistency

A handful of retirements from lowly positions flatters his 2019 race value but overall the trend is still clear. Norris is now qualifying higher, finishing higher, and achieving these results more consistently. In his words, the biggest change this season is “just how often I’ve been able to maximise my positions, maximise my opportunities”.

Confidence is at the heart of that. There appears to be a clear pattern of Norris feeling a sense of reassurance, driving better as a result of that, feeling more confident and assured because of those good results, driving better…and so on.

To understand that you need to understand that the Norris that we see flashes of on television, in the paddock or on social media is an amalgamation of two personas: a jokey, relaxed person and a seriously dedicated driver.

Striking that balance has not been easy. Norris’s insecurity emerges again as he admits that toning down some of his online antics was “just for reassurance and confidence – a lot of that was just trying to be a better person and allow people to support me and like me”.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, Hungary

“I don’t want people just to see me as a joker and a guy who doesn’t take things seriously because that’s not who I am,” he says.

“I just wanted to show them that I do put in effort, I do work very hard to do better and get the results I’m getting at the moment. It doesn’t come for free, and I just wasn’t very good at showing that side of it.

“I feel like I’ve shown more of it over the last year and a half or so. A bit of it was just for myself, to kind of make me feel better and allow people to see me for who I am, not just a joker.”

There’s no better example of that than how Norris has developed in a way that has him leading McLaren faultlessly since Carlos Sainz’s exit and Daniel Ricciardo’s arrival. In fact, the extent to which Norris has put Ricciardo in the shade has been one of 2021’s most surprising stories.

A big part of that is down to Ricciardo’s specific struggles with the MCL35M’s characteristics. But there’s a reason Norris is so in-tune with the car, having adapted his own driving style early in the year after feeling like the approach that worked best for last year’s MCL35 was not optimal.

These little examples – refining his 2021 driving, improving his consistency, demonstrating his focus – show how devoted Norris is to his craft, something he’s grateful is noticed when put to him by The Race.

“A bit of this has also come with experience,” he says. “The mental capacity gets bigger, and things to focus on get much easier as you just get more at home in Formula 1.

“If you compare it to your first race when you’re thinking, ‘Alright, I got to do this and that and that and every change on the steering wheel’…Now I feel like I can just hop in the car and I know that one thing I’ve got to focus on and I don’t need to think about everything else in order to do it well.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

“All those other things I can just do well naturally because of the practice. I can focus on these smaller, more important things nowadays.

“It’s not just simply how to drive quickly, a lot of it is how to make the car better for next year and over the next five years rather than just today.

“But I do spend a lot of time with my engineers sitting down, going through data, looking at GPS compared to other cars, looking at my data compared to Daniel – even when he’s been struggling there’s always things that he still does very well still and I’m able to learn from him.

“I feel like I can speak more openly within the team and within debriefs and go, ‘I don’t like this and I like that’. You’re less afraid to say things that might be wrong, or things that people would disagree with.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Preparation Day Silverstone, England

“All of that is part of trying to become a better person, and a more knowledgeable person, who can use the information better. Not everything is simply about how to drive around one lap quicker. A lot of it is also my knowledge and information capacity and working with the team making sure that in as many areas we can improve and make better, we are.”

That indicates Norris is quickly grasping the importance of the wider picture, too. It’s part of what is shaping into such an impressive all-round driver. No doubt how he fits in at McLaren is helping enormously. He has spoken before of his need to enjoy what he is doing, and how that is influenced by the environment he feels in his team.

Norris likes to go racing with friends, not just colleagues. It’s why in karting he was a Ricky Flynn man, in junior single-seaters he linked up with Carlin repeatedly, and in F1 he is open to the idea of becoming a McLaren ‘lifer’.

That is almost certainly linked to how Norris builds his confidence. In the Zak Brown/Andreas Seidl McLaren era, Norris has all the support he could ask for. But he doesn’t need to be coddled, and says he isn’t.

“Some people don’t feel like they want support, they feel like they can do it all alone, and you get some drivers who feel like they need lots of support and they need all the confidence from every person around them possible,” he says.

“I would say I’m kind of in the middle. I love doing a lot of things alone, and being a very negative guy and trying to work on myself a lot. I feel like I can do a lot by complimenting myself and being negative about myself and I can learn a lot from just doing that.

“But then also [it is beneficial] having your people around you. And the guys you need to look good in front of are your bosses – having them support you in the tough times and criticise you when you need to be criticised.

“It’s not all about just trying to make you feel good. I still feel pressure from them, so it’s not like it’s easy and I feel like we’re best mates and I can get away with everything.

“They are still my bosses and I don’t want to make mistakes, I don’t want to make them look bad and I’ve still got a job at the end of the day where I have to perform and go out and do a very good job.

“I still get the pressure from them that I have to go and achieve all of those things. But it’s also support in those tougher times, or the times you struggle, or the times you need that kick up the arse to go and do a better job in whatever area – they give you that.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Sunday Monte Carlo, Monaco

We often talk about marginal gains in F1. Subtle improvements can have a big impact and a lot of factors need to combine nicely to get the absolute best out of a driver.

That’s what Norris’s splendid season is proving. The stars are perfectly aligned. He has a team that is gradually moulding itself around him (it’s inevitable as the incumbent driver who is also leading the charge), he has the best car he’s ever driven in F1, he is building experience, he is happy and he is performing well as a result.

Oh, and he’s raced Hamilton so hard in a grand prix he sparked a mid-race compliment from the seven-time world champion. Reflecting on that Austrian Grand Prix battle, Norris picks up on an all-too-familiar theme: confidence.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

“It is valuable,” Norris reflects on that Austrian Grand Prix battle. “It’s something that will definitely help me out in the future when I’m in those kinds of situations again.

“It’s just reassuring to know that if I am there in the future, if I am in that position again, that I’m able to compete there and be able to beat him in different scenarios and so on.

“It doesn’t make me believe all of a sudden I can win races and I can achieve greatness or whatever. It doesn’t change like that. It’s just when I’m in that position again I know what I’m capable of doing against someone like Lewis.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Preparation Day Silverstone, England

“I don’t think the fact that was Lewis changes everything and it’s like, ‘oh my god, what do I have to do now?’. It makes a very small difference because you know he’s one of the best drivers in the world, and ever in Formula 1. You know he’s going to be thinking about every opportunity on how to maximise and how to get past me. Any slip up I have makes me more vulnerable than if I’m racing against probably anyone else in that situation.

“It just forces you to be even more perfect, to concentrate even more. It’s more just reassuring and gives me good confidence in the future when I’m in that position again and I’m racing Lewis or Max or whoever that I’m comfortable and I can perform well.

Jul 04 : Austrian Grand Prix review

“I’m not gonna say, I don’t make mistakes under pressure, because I’m sure I will. But I can perform very well and not easily make a mistake or give something up that easily.”

That kind of outlook marks a clear shift from the second-guessing that marred Norris’s rookie season in particular.

Maintaining a positive headspace is a never-ending challenge in elite sport. But F1’s most self-doubting driver’s present form is so good that even he accepts he’s exactly where he belongs.

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