Why Lando Norris Was The Quiet Star Of The 2021 Bahrain GP
The recently-concluded Bahrain GP was not devoid of any drama, in addition to real edge-of-the-seat thrills. You simply couldn’t tell who’d clinch the night-safari with Verstappen pushing Hamilton literally to the edge in his valiant attempt to capture the electrifying contest.
Even before the race could start, there was drama with Red Bull newcomer Perez, due to start from eleventh on the grid, relegated to a start from the pits siding technical issues with the machine. Vettel scoring no points in his maiden Aston Martin outing was about as heartbreaking as his past teammate Raikkonen just missing out on opening his account. Alonso retiring owing to overheating brakes caused actually by a sandwich wrapper was about as shocking and weird as Bottas butt-bearing on Netflix.
But at the end of a suspenseful, action-packed night, there was a lot of relief on offer from what one gathered through the sound bytes offered to the media. Truth be told, rarely has a champion driver like Lewis Hamilton seemed so relieved at the end of an ordeal as the Bahrain GP of 2021.
“Aah, am so happy, really really happy with this,” exclaimed the seven-time world champion. Max would concur, “The result may be disappointing but it shows how much we’ve grown as a team, it’s a positive start to the season.” Charles expressed satisfaction remarking, “It’s been quite a good race (even as we were lacking in pace to the McLarens).
But elsewhere, right at the very end, seconds after the front end of the grid hit the checkered flag, one young man was pleasantly surprised seeing the fireworks decorate the blazing evening skies of Sakhir. He’d be prompted to ask, “Were the fireworks for me?”
Yes, the fireworks were for you Lando Norris!
Some would say he was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. But surely, that lot doesn’t know young gritty British racer Lando Norris, a man with a penchant to engage in brave overtaking the moment an opportunity throws up a surprise as also a man who doesn’t eschew a chance to raise a toast to his effort and importantly that of his team when savouring a great battle.
There are hardly any surprises with Lando Norris at the helm of a battle on the Formula 1 grid.
Last year, he would fight lap after lap for every inch of the space available on the challenging Hungaroring as well as the Catalonia (2020), denying two Ferraris in the battle for supremacy in the midfield.
This wasn’t after he’d make a supreme pass right in the final-lap of the season-opening Austrian GP, passing the visibly faster Racing Point of Sergio Perez to move himself up into third.
But this year, even as Lando Norris didn’t bag a podium, he collected the best of the rest performance, if you come to think of it for positions trailing the top three.
The best of the grid outside the top three
While what was evident from the onset of Hamilton brilliantly executing the undercut (on Max) until the dogged fight to the final lap was the Mercedes versus Red Bull battle, what couldn’t be sidelined was the brilliance of Lando Norris setting the perfect tone to a closely-fought midfield battle.
Forget not the fact that the pressure, in some ways, was always going to be on young Lando Norris, all of 21.
The moment his McLaren team signed star-driver Daniel Riccardo, a racer that can transform an insipid contest into one intoxicated with vigor, perhaps eight in ten contended that the Australian could get the measure of a young up-and-coming Briton.
In theory, a driver ten years senior to the other rising force and more importantly armed with seven wins is always going to challenge and push a young teammate hard.
And in piloting his MCL 35M to sixth on the qualifying at the 2021 Bahrain GP, it was Riccardo who clearly threw down the gauntlet in the teammate’s battle.
Lando Norris proved himself to be a different driver altogether
What perhaps wasn’t given all much attention to- but deserved every bit of it- was that not once did Norris fall outside the top ten on the grid.
He never nosedived to an eleventh or twelfth on the grid for example so as to put in twice the effort to make up for the lost position inside the top ten.
By lap 4, Lando, beginning from seventh on the grid, had moved to sixth with Riccardo trailing the handy youngster, seconds after which he’d boldly pass the Mercedes of Bottas around turn 5.
Implicit in his consistency at keeping the nose of his exuberantly orange machine ahead of his close-competitors were key battles with the likes of Ferrari.
In fact, at a time where Sainz, Vettel, and Alonso were embroiled in the fight for eighth, Lando was busy fending off the fast-catching Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, in a bid to capture fifth.
And must it be admitted that the moment of the race for Norris was the close fight with Leclerc, against whom he held the upper hand.
That’s when the latter’s Ferrari seemed nearly as quick in the corners as the grippy McLaren.
The dogfight with Leclerc, Lap 8
One of the most-sought after scraps you could tell from the start was always going to be the Lando challenging Leclerc battle, an episode that well and truly came to life from the onset of lap 8.
On a track where tire management is just as important as race-pace, Leclerc, firmly positioned until such time on fourth began to see Norris’ McLaren as clear in his mirrors as a deep sea diver spotting a shark.
And this key scrap for P4, a very realistic target, one to which Norris would eventually hold onto, would become one of the definitive moments of the 56-lap run.
There immediately came at time at turn four when Norris suddenly sneaked up on the outside of Charles going wheel-to-wheel just before the approach to the right-hander.
Half a lap later, with Charles defending from all his might, Norris, who’d been hanging on to fifth ever so tightly attacked the Monegasque driver with marauding pace, getting the hang of the Ferrari’s straight line pace down at the main straight.
The perseverance of two closely-fought laps would pay off; Norris would throw himself onto Leclerc’s inside positioning his McLaren ahead of the Ferrari in prompting a change in guard that only the best players in the midfield could’ve executed.
But was that all?
Make no mistake, for at all these times Lando had a more experienced teammate in Riccardo to defend from, the Australian determined to cover lost ground after having been passed with comfortable ease by the young British driver within minutes of the start.
While a P4 might not have tasted like the tangy bubbly fizz of the champagne, knowing that they had two staunch Ferraris to defend from apart from having the challenge to set the perfect tone to the supremacy in the midfield, McLaren would certainly have savoured the sweet taste of victory courtesy Lando Norris’ P4.
And in doing so with remarkable skill and composure, Lando Norris has truly proven that while the stars in the night sky may not have belonged to him or McLaren, the fireworks were certainly down to his on-track exploits.
May we see such belter of contests up ahead as well!