Who Is Going to Lead McLaren?
One of the most highly anticipated pairings of the 2021 season, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo are the faces of the new 2021 McLaren lineup. Both fans and the media have raved over the two, spanning their potential prowess with the new Mercedes engines, the new rap anthem that was teased in yesterday’s MCL35M launch and the memes that people are sure the two would produce during the next season. The excitement over the duo as spread across social media, and on paper (and all other advertising material) they seem to be a solid pair. And with McLaren’s equal treatment of Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr’s partnership the last 2 years, all are eager to see how they will actually stack up against each other with a relatively even playing field.
But how well will Norris actually perform against Ricciardo? Ricciardo probably has one of the best resumes on the grid right now, and could be exactly what McLaren need to consistently reach the podium. He is someone who knows how to win races, who has placed in the top ten in 7 out of his last 9 full seasons and who was considered the leading driver at Renault the last two years. Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren F1 team, said in an interview last year, “a Grand Prix winner like Daniel is definitely a sign that we’re going in the right direction.” The CEO has had his eyes on Ricciardo for a while, citing that ”we got our man this time”. It’s clear that Ricciardo is a full package, pace, experience and one of the best loved personalities by the public.
So how did he make his way to McLaren with the skills he has? In short, reliability and performance. Many were shocked when Ricciardo left Red Bull (as dramatised in Drive to Survive) and there have been various speculations about the true reason. Even Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner was surprised at his willingness to go to what fans consider a midfield team, citing that ”if it was for Mercedes or Ferrari I could have understood that.” Despite a stellar debut season in 2014 with Red Bull, 2015 brought a slower car and 2017 and 2018 were fraught with retirements, frustrating Ricciardo and prompting his move. But his first season with Renault was also disappointing, planting him in 9th place. (lower than he accomplished at Red Bull) Clearly performance reliability has been a bit issue in his career, and with his eyes on the shiny new Mercedes engine in the MCL35M, he should be excited. On top of that, McLaren are in good shape to benefit from the 2022 regulation change and new investment from MSP Sports Capital. Based on this and McLaren’s upward trajectory the past couple years, there is little reason to believe that there isn’t potential for Ricciardo to flourish and even reach podiums with the team.
Apart from his track performance, he has much to offer the team elsewhere. His character is famous on the grid, with the often cheery Australian cracking jokes to the media. Fans have latched on to the bromance between 2020 McLaren pair Norris and Sainz, and they are eager to see how the 2021 duo fare. Both have been labeled jokesters by both the community and their paddock peers, but they have been quite insistent that they will not be a “meme power couple” as Ricciardo has said. The Australian may be known for his smile, but his self-imposed nickname of the Honey Badger says there’s more than meets the eye. Fans will have heard multiple versions of the name’s origin, but all containing the phrase “killer instinct” in reference to his determination and aggression on track. Ricciardo’s 9 years in F1 have also left him with a wealth of knowledge, from not only competitors fighting in the midfield (Renault) but also one of the top teams. (Red Bull before Mercedes’ recent dominance) In Norris’ words, we are all “curious to see how he drives a car and what his approach is.” Ricciardo isn’t unfamiliar with a younger teammate either, with his 3 years of his time spent at Red Bull partnered with Max Verstappen. During those seasons Ricciardo finished ahead of Verstappen twice, so only time will tell if Ricciardo can best Norris during his two year stay with the Woking-based team.
However, Norris isn’t looking to back down and has his own tactics up his sleeve. He has said that he has had tips from Red Bull racer Max Verstappen over the potential weaknesses of his teammates and said, “if anyone can tell me them then that’s a benefit.” (both coincidently being past partners of the Dutchman) It is obvious that he doesn’t have the same level of experience as McLaren and Sainz have been his only team and teammate. Yet throughout his past two seasons we saw him gain confidence and skills within the team, and he has had quite the junior career. He has enjoyed Formula Renault, F4 and F3 championship wins and ended runner up in his F2 season to George Russell. People wondered if he could be the next Lewis Hamilton, even following the British champion’s footsteps in the McLaren Young Driver Programme. Admittedly, some think that the Brit’s momentum has become stagnant, especially as he has signed a multi year deal in a team that currently remains in the midfield. (Though with the new engine and the 2022 rule changes there could be a significant shake up in the constructors order) After his debut in F1, he seems to have been overshadowed by Russell, a fellow Brit vying for a Mercedes seat. But to most, he has established himself as a reliable qualifier (just besting Sainz) with good race pace, and with a good car underneath him there is much potential for him to score more podiums beyond his first at Austria. (albeit aided by the use of Scenario 7)
Conversely to Ricciardo, Norris’ existing rapport with McLaren means that the team understands how to tailor the car to his preferences. In anticipation of Sainz’ departure, Norris would most certainly have had many discussions with the team in preparation for the 2021 car. (perhaps more so than Ricciardo who would have had to remain loyal to Renault until his contract runs out) He also understands that this “is going to be the hardest season” since he entered F1, as he needs to prove that he can hold his own against a race winner and be able to lead a team. Leaning into that leadership role, he has recently been considered the face of McLaren as Sainz leaves and Ricciardo joins, for example his advocating for mental health, and also helping out his team after races leading to a good reputation with the public. His long contract ensures that he will still be in the team when McLaren predicts that they will make the most progress with the Mercedes engine. If Norris can continue the trajectory that he has set in F1 and McLaren can develop a car that brings them back to the top, a championship is still very much in the cards for him.
In all, we still cannot be sure of both drivers’ true skillset. They seem to have been held back by the speed of the car, only being able to join the midfield battle. If McLaren delivers we can see how they stack up against frontrunners like Verstappen and Leclerc, often lauded as the next world champions. Despite 2021 being Norris’ 3rd year with McLaren, there is still a rookie image that hovers over his head, and in the words of CEO Brown “ it’s time for Lando to no longer be a rookie.” Ricciardo can still be considered in his prime (scoring 2 podiums last year to Norris’ 1) and seems to have the upper hand experience-wise, but from what we saw at Renault it might take time for him to settle in, and that is Norris’ opportunity to shine. This could be one of the most defining stages of their career, Norris looking to climb up the ranks and prove he is McLaren’s top hope with a chance to be a champion; Ricciardo to show that he won’t lose out to a younger driver and didn’t make the wrong move leaving Red Bull three years ago.
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