Lando Norris took his third F1 podium in nine races in 2021 with a superb third place in the Austrian Grand Prix

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Throughout his stellar weekend at the Austrian Grand Prix, Lando Norris joked that the hoards of orange-clad Max Verstappen devotees were there to cheer on his “papaya”-liveried McLaren. They were not, but his performance at the Red Bull Ring was more than worthy of the adoration and adulation of every last one of them. This was another serene and supreme performance from Max Verstappen, but we did not learn much about him in Spielberg. Norris showed us a great deal. 

On Saturday he narrowly missed out on pole position by less than a tenth of a second. Instead, he had to “make do” with second – his first front row start and McLaren’s best qualifying position in nearly a decade. Their last start this high was so long ago that it was delivered by Lewis Hamilton. 

Since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012, McLaren have almost come full circle. They first dropped slowly back before a precipitous decline in the ill-fated McLaren/Honda revival of 2015-2017 when even the star driver pairing of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button – plus the talented Stoffel Vandoorne – could only muster a pitiful 133 points in three seasons and 62 races. 

With Norris’s superb third place on Sunday they passed this total for the season after just nine rounds, taking three podiums in the process. They are still without a win since Interlagos in 2012, but this is a hugely significant moment for McLaren – and an even more significant one for young Norris. He deserves as much credit as anyone for helping the team cement their current position.

Norris, 21, has scored podiums before. This third place could have been more but for a dubious penalty for his early move on Sergio Pérez. This was his third top-three finish this year and his fourth in total and there were a couple of telling and important moments on his way to the podium. 

Norris held off Hamilton for nearly 20 laps

Credit: Clive Mason – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Before the race and despite his blistering qualifying lap, Norris and his team had been openly pessimistic as to whether they could deliver a top-three finish with the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton behind. This was a reasonable assumption. At last week’s Styrian Grand Prix at the same track, he finished a respectable fifth, but a lap down from all of the four Red Bull and Mercedes cars. 

After 10 laps of the Austrian Grand Prix, however, he had held his second place and was keeping Hamilton at bay with some excellent defensive driving. His team already questioned the wisdom of fighting Hamilton too hard – their race was with Pierre Gasly in fifth, they told him. The biggest target for the team on Sunday was to increase their lead on Ferrari in the standings. When he was told of Gasly’s position and lap times early on in the race he simply replied: “Yeah, OK. I don’t care.” Message read, loud and clear.

It would take another 10 laps for the world champion to get past. When it was clear the time was up, Norris did not fight it too hard. On the radio immediately after, Hamilton praised Norris. “Such a great driver, Lando,” Hamilton said earnestly. 

Yet, even after falling behind Hamilton and then Bottas, Norris did not disappear from their tails as might have been expected with the Mercedes cars now in clean air. Ultimately, the lead McLaren’s pace in the race was quick enough to put Mercedes in a strange strategical twist over whether to swap Hamilton and Bottas. Once Hamilton let his team-mate through, Norris passed the damaged Mercedes soon after with a neat move through the inside of turn five. 

Looking at two periods in the race where all things were roughly equal, the McLaren was a match for the Mercedes W12, especially in the later stages. Once Hamilton passed Norris on lap 20, he was quicker than him by around 0.3sec per lap until the pit stops on lap 29/30. Bottas, in the dirty air was a tenth quicker than Norris in this time. 

Hamilton vs Norris vs Bottas
Austrian GP: Hamilton/Norris/Bottas pace analysis

Yet in the final 17 laps, with Norris had just cleared Hamilton and was chasing Bottas, he had a pace advantage over Hamilton of 0.4sec – not surprising given the floor damage, though Hamilton did have much fresher tyres – and was marginally quicker than Bottas over the same period.  With just two seconds between second and third at the chequered flag, Norris would have been second, most likely, without his penalty. 

It is even more impressive given who his team-mate is this year. When Daniel Ricciardo joined McLaren, it looked a real coup for the team and a way to turbo-charge their resurgence. An experienced man with seven Grand Prix wins to his name, a driver who kept Max Verstappen honest in their time at Red Bull and with a reputation for the bold overtake. With a third of the 2021 season gone, though, Norris has made Ricciardo look like the inexperienced one, leading him 100 points to 40, three podiums to none and 6-3 in qualifying.

Lando Norris 2021 performances

There are mitigating circumstances for the Australian’s performances and it will be fairer to judge him at the end of the season. He is clearly still finding his feet. He struggled initially relative to Nico Hülkenberg at his first season for Renault in 2019 before overhauling the German at the end of the season. Because of Norris, the reality of Ricciardo’s arrival – and his own hopes and expectations – has changed drastically.

Since Norris made his debut there are a handful of drivers who have stood out. Verstappen and Hamilton are the obvious two, but Ricciardo is one (he rated third in our 2020 end of season rankings) and Charles Leclerc is another. In 2021 it is almost impossible not to see Norris above them. Leclerc is still having a fine season and can drag performance out of an underperforming car but prone to crashes caused by over-eagerness early on in races. Norris is quick, consistent and largely without error. Arguably this season he is second only to Verstappen.

Above all, though, it is Norris’s rate of improvement that is the most impressive thing. Not even three seasons into his career and it is hard to think of any serious flaws or question marks over his driving. The weaknesses of timidity at the start of a race and a failure to maximise his qualifying laps have all but disappeared. There is also now an outward maturity and seriousness that was a little hidden by his status as a “meme lord” and his jovial partnership with Sainz. Not just quick, but seriously quick and serious too. 

The orange army at the Red Bull Ring were not cheering Norris’s every lap on Sunday. But the feverish adoration may come soon enough. It is 21 years since a British driver other than Lewis Hamilton stood on the podium at the British Grand Prix, when David Coulthard took the chequered flag. With Hamilton faltering in his title attempt, the hundreds of thousands of fans at the British Grand Prix will do everything they can to will Norris onto the rostrum.