Lando Norris has no one to blame but himself for the Russian GP debacle. But the lessons from the loss will stay with the rising F1 star.
It was American baseball legend Yogi Berra who once said “it ain’t over till it’s over” all the way back in 1973. It’s been nearly 50 years since the phrase was uttered and yet, simple and cliche as it is, it remains true till this day. In a chaotic Russian GP that saw rain cause chaos in the first few laps, it rang true for McLaren’s Lando Norris.
The 21-year-old British driver had put in a masterful drive till that point. He started on pole but lost the position to former teammate Carlos Sainz. The Ferrari driver was undone partly due to a poor pit stop and also a lack of race pace, but Norris had done masterfully well throughout the race.
He overtook Sainz and then, in the closing stages of the race, did well to doggedly defend against Lewis Hamilton. However, the defining moment of his race arrived as soon as rain did at Sochi.
With only a few laps remaining, Norris believed he could gut it out on slicks. McLaren wanted him to pit for a change of tyres but he refused. It was a gamble that might have worked. It could have worked. Many were, in fact, hoping it did work.
And indeed it might have… if the rain did not worsen towards the end and require the entire field to pit for intermidiate tyres.
In the end, it was Hamilton who crossed the start-finish line to take the headlines. After all, the seven-time world champion is now F1’s lone centurion.
But it was hard not to feel for Norris. What should have been the greatest moment of his young career – a maiden race win – ended in heartbreak.
The truth is though, that if Lando Norris won the race, no one would be talking about his gamble. Specifically, no one would talk about why it was a bad idea – even without the benefit of hindsight.
Yet a bad idea it was, for one very simple reason – the team were well aware of the weather. They were aware the rain could get worse. And thus they did try to call him in, but he refused to pit, wary of losing ground.
It’s worth noting at this point that all elite racers have a cavalier attitude; after all, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be racing. But that doesn’t mean they should make every decision on their own.
The benefits of taking heed of what the team is advising is plainly evident in today’s day and age. And yet, that is exactly what Norris chose not to do.
In all fairness, he wasn’t the only one. Hamilton, who went on to win the race, brazenly ignored his first call into the pits. However, the defending world champion rushed into the pits as soon as he realised the situation was worsening.
Norris did not. And when confronted with worsening rain, it was only a matter of time before he lost ground.
Of course, that’s not to say an “I’ll do it myself” attitude” is a bad thing. There will be times a team has no control over what’s happening. Daniel Ricciardo’s win at Monaco in 2018 is a good example of that.
He was unable to change gears and was suffering from a loss of engine power. Yet he nursed his car home into first place.
The point is, there are times it pays to take matters into your own hands. The 2021 Russian GP was not one of them.
To his credit, Norris accepted that it was his mistake that led to him losing control of the car and running off the track.
“I don’t know where to start. Obviously unhappy, devastated in a way. I guess we made a call to stay out; we stand by that call but it was the wrong one at the end of the day,” he said after the race.
“I made a decision just as much as the team. In fact it was more they thought I should box and I decided to stay out. So, my decision – I thought it was the way to go.
“Not the result we wanted in the end. I could have won the race and I didn’t. So I’m never going to be happy like this. But it’s the way it is, the way it went. We made the decisions, I made the decisions that I made and we were obviously wrong at the end of the day, so a tough one.”
It was clear at that point he was fighting back tears. Indeed, the win was there for the taking. He led for most of the race, he defended well against a seven-time world champion and he showed why he is a future star in the making.
He’s been doing that all season, in fact. Lando Norris has grabbed four podiums in 2021 and has thoroughly outshined teammate Ricciardo, an eight-time race winner in his own right.
Yes, Norris also showed why he still has a ways to go before he becomes a race winner. But he will be all the better for it when faced with the same situation again.
After all, it is clear at this point that it’s a matter of when he gets that first win – not if.