At 19 years and 124 days old Lando Norris will become the third-youngest driver in history to start a Formula 1 race, when he makes his McLaren debut at the 2019 Australian Grand Prix.
However, as Max Verstappen has recently proven, age is but a number. The motorsport proverb, ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ has never been truer. Despite his tender years, Norris is exactly the kind of driver McLaren needs right now.
With the departure of Fernando Alonso, next year will be the first season that McLaren has not fielded a world champion in its driver line-up since 2006 – and even then, Kimi Raikkonen was a former championship runner-up and his Indianapolis 500 winning team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya was hardly an unproven talent.
McLaren is in unfamiliar territory right now. It may have won 21.7 percent of the races it has entered, but McLaren is no longer a race winning team after having not climbed to the top step in nearly six years.
Instead, it is buried in the midfield albeit owning the resources required to reach the top of the sport, needing time to return to pre-eminence. For the same reasons that we didn’t anticipate a Renault victory in its first few seasons back in the sport, instant success at McLaren is close to impossible.
As a result, having a world champion in the roster of drivers is simply unsustainable. It brings added and unnecessary pressure – expectations are raised, the spotlight intensifies and the payback is minimal while said world champion is without the tools required to compete at the front of the field.
Norris, and his team-mate for 2019 and fellow new recruit Carlos Sainz Jr, fits McLaren’s new profile perfectly.
Both are young and have the time to lead a long-term project. Both are marketable individuals, with the iconic Sainz name coupled with the young Brit following in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton. Both will be comfortable operating in the midfield – at least for now.
These are two pragmatic signings from a team which has arguably spent too long shooting for the moon of late.
Of course, McLaren could have retained Stoffel Vandoorne to partner Sainz and given Norris at least one more season in Formula 2, (assuming he is pipped to this year’s title by Mercedes protegee George Russell).
Vandoorne has unquestionably faced one of the toughest challenges in being paired with Alonso for his first two seasons in F1 – particularly considering McLaren’s on and off-track headaches over the past couple of years.
As such, few would have expected him to beat Alonso, but rather to at least match the two-time world champion semi-regularly. So far in 2018, Vandoorne is yet to outqualify Alonso in 14 attempts and has scored just eight points compared to Alonso’s 44. In three of the last four qualifying sessions, Vandoorne has finished 20th and last.
This kind of downturn in performance can be caused by multiple factors and it would be unfair to label Vandoorne based entirely on this season. His junior single-seater CV is still one of the most impressive in world motorsport at present and he did score a point with a determined drive on his F1 debut.
However, Norris’s CV is also one of the best – he has won the championship in each and every single-seater category he has entered and in his first season. Currently in a battle for F2 title honours, it is possible that this streak will continue.
If it didn’t promote Norris for 2019, McLaren would have risked losing its brightest young talent to a rival team. Toro Rosso has already shown an interest in hiring Norris to replace Brendon Hartley this year before the move was blocked. Quelling outside interest is only possible for so long and promoting Norris can be seen as a move similar to when Red Bull brought Verstappen into the main team ahead of time.
Career momentum is also a factor to consider. After romping to the GP2 series title in 2015, Vandoorne’s career arguably stalled when McLaren sent him to Japanese Super Formula for one comparatively underwhelming campaign.
This is a trap that Norris will now not fall into, instead retaining the remarkable pace at which he has risen through the categories.
Promoting Norris to McLaren after just one year in F2 – and, crucially, only one year’s worth of experience on Pirelli tyres – is a gamble. Not retaining an element of continuity in the driver line-up by resigning Vandoorne adds to the risk.
However, it means a fresh start for McLaren – something that the team has seemingly been keen to engineer amid the significant personnel changes and management restructure that has already happened this year.
Norris is a special talent who is a perfect fit for the new-McLaren profile. Fast, marketable, motivated and with time to grow into being one of F1’s biggest stars, promoting Norris has all the hallmarks of a being good decision.