Lando Norris preparing for his hardest but best F1 season
McLaren's Lando Norris expects 2021 to be the hardest but best season of his fledgling Formula One career, with a new team mate in Australian Daniel Ricciardo, a switch to Mercedes engines and absolutely no excuses.
The 21-year-old will be starting his third year in grand prix racing having already established himself as the youngest Briton to stand on the podium after finishing third in Austria last year.
He ended that season ninth overall after finishing 11th in his debut year.
"In many ways it's going to be the hardest season altogether but I am hoping the best season too," Norris told reporters ahead of the online launch of McLaren's new MCL35M car at the factory alongside Ricciardo.
"The hardest for different reasons and one of them being that I'm the guy with the experience at McLaren so I need to take on a bit more of that role and show how it is done and lead the team in the right direction.
"It's a bigger opportunity for me to take up that lead and something I will work very hard on."
Ricciardo has replaced Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who has moved to Ferrari, at the Woking-based team and Norris suggested the challenge for him would not be very different with the driver change.
"I don’t think it makes it any harder. Carlos is an extremely good driver and there are things Carlos is going to be better at than Daniel and vice-versa," he said.
"I don’t believe Daniel is a big step above anything that Carlos has achieved so it doesn't really change much for me.
"There's probably more pressure on him because he has been in Formula One for longer," added Norris, who said he had fully recovered from contracting Covid-19 in January while in Dubai.
Norris said there would be no excuses in his third year and he would have to perform.
He said he had stepped up in training, mentioning that he had also modified habits such as "trying not to have a pizza as often".
"I am trying to think outside the box and dedicating more time and thinking more than normal to work out what is good for me and push myself to the next level," he said.
McLaren say closing the yawning gap to Formula One champions Mercedes is their main aim for the season after finishing third last year.
Mercedes won 13 of the 17 races last season, and have taken both titles for the last seven years, while once-dominant McLaren have not won a race since 2012.
The Woking-based team are using Mercedes engines this year, however, after three seasons with Renault and three before that with Honda - that one a failed partnership that plumbed the depths.
"I think challenging for the championship would be unrealistic given the journey that we're on," McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown told reporters on Monday as his team became the first to present their 2021 car.
"I think all we can hope for, and are striving for, is to close the gap to Mercedes, who we anticipate to be the fastest team again in '21."
The cars look very similar to last year's, although there are some subtle aerodynamic tweaks, with the big regulation changes deferred to 2022.
McLaren could just as easily have finished fifth last year, taking third thanks to fourth-placed Racing Point (now Aston Martin) being docked 15 points.
Aston Martin, who now have four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel, also use Mercedes engines and will be another benchmark.
Ferrari will also be expected to come back stronger after their worst season in 40 years, while Renault have double world champion and former McLaren driver Fernando Alonso making a comeback.
That all adds up to a big battle for McLaren, who avoided talk of fighting to retain third place and focused instead on pace and performance.
"We're going to keep our eyes on all the competition. It would be naive to underestimate any of the competition," said Brown.
"We want to be the best of the customer teams, we've got one target in mind and that's closing the gap to the front of the field."
The season starts in Bahrain on March 28.
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