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Analysis

Has Norris done the right thing by committing to McLaren?

Lando Norris has signed a new contract with McLaren, ending speculation that he could be in line for a move to Red Bull, but has he made the right decision?

Lando Norris, McLaren, 2nd position, celebrates with his team on arrival in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Loyalty is laudable but absolutely no guarantee of success in Formula 1. Lando Norris wants to, and has shown the potential to, win world titles. So, his signing a contract extension to stay put at McLaren is not primarily borne out of a feeling that he needs to repay any kind of debt to a team that recruited him as a junior driver in 2017 and afforded him his topflight break two years later. Instead, he has renewed vows because he feels McLaren offers a realistic route to success.

The terms of Norris’ new deal have not been disclosed. That might be because the paperwork contains break clauses so the actual end date is not set in stone. Or perhaps it only bolts on two years to his previous 2022-25 deal, so McLaren don’t want to shout too loudly about a shorter commitment this time around.

If the latter is true, it indicates that Norris believes remaining at Woking is the best option for now but might not necessarily take him all the way to title glory. Norris himself admits that championship success at McLaren is unlikely to arrive before 2026.

“If you want to win one race, we are the closest we've ever been since I've been here at McLaren and for many, many years,” he said. “But fighting for a championship is a bigger step…

“The championship, as much as I would love to say over the next two years, ’26 is an opportunity for everyone on the grid. So that's the big, big question mark.”

Currently aged 24, there’s still ample time for rumours linking Norris to Red Bull to resume. But with his stock so high and him being so embedded at McLaren, putting that all on the line in the shorter term by upping sticks and trying to unseat Max Verstappen from a similar position isn’t entirely appealing.

Had Norris not agreed a contract extension and was therefore a free agent for 2026, he would have been moving on the eve of a major regulation change. At a time when Red Bull would be taking a mammoth step by debuting its own in-house engine design, there’s no guarantee that today’s dominant force would still be quite so untouchable.

With his stock so high and him being so embedded at McLaren, putting that all on the line by upping sticks and trying to unseat Max Verstappen from a similar position isn’t entirely appealing

Photo by: FIA Pool

With his stock so high and him being so embedded at McLaren, putting that all on the line by upping sticks and trying to unseat Max Verstappen from a similar position isn’t entirely appealing

“I think it's just a very, very good time [to sign a new deal], especially when it's going to be coming to a couple of years where things start to get a bit more crazy with everyone else's contracts and people potentially moving teams and things like that,” notes Norris.

“Just going into ’26 and those years of new regulations and everything, that's not something I think I or the team want to be thinking of, or focusing on, or spending any time on in such an important couple years.”

Norris has also been viewed as a realistic successor to Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. The seven-time champion is committed to the Three-Pointed Star until the end of 2025. But would the grass really be greener in Brackley than it is in Surrey? Same for Ferrari, which beat McLaren by 24 hours in announcing that its own talisman had signed a new deal – Charles Leclerc has also agreed a similarly vague “multi-year” extension.

Since McLaren is still not operating at its full potential, little wonder Norris - like the rest of the paddock - is as optimistic about McLaren’s fortunes as he’s ever been

The other plausible destination for Norris would have been upwardly mobile midfielder Aston Martin. It is known that during 2023, team executives tested the water with Norris and Leclerc to see if they would consider one day replacing, or teaming up with, Fernando Alonso should Lance Stroll ever make way.

Those are the viable options for Norris. However, arguably none offer as great a cause for optimism as McLaren does right now.

After two years in the ground-effects wilderness, Mercedes must bolt out of the gates in 2024 to reassure onlookers that it has been experiencing only a painful blip rather than a complete fall from grace. Ferrari has endured a brain drain (most notably, racing director Laurent Mekies left to become team principal at the junior Red Bull team; head of vehicle concept David Sanchez has been poached by McLaren). New team principal Fred Vasseur has been clear that the subsequent recruitment drive will be drawn out given contract expiries and periods of ‘gardening leave’ that delay new signings from punching in. All told, the Maranello drought is expected to continue.

The closest comparison comes with Aston Martin. Like McLaren, it has invested heavily in its infrastructure and lured technical talent away from Red Bull. It now boasts its own wind tunnel and a brand-new factory as owner Lawrence Stroll works to propel the outfit towards title success. But the Aston project is, at best, just as convincing as McLaren’s, if not a little less.

The Aston project is, at best, just as convincing as McLaren’s, if not a little less so

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The Aston project is, at best, just as convincing as McLaren’s, if not a little less so

McLaren’s revival throughout the middle part of 2023 was extraordinary. New team principal Andrea Stella noted at the launch of the MCL60 that winter development targets had been missed and a period of pain was in store. This was refreshingly honest. There was no attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Stella also identified what needed to change, so he revamped the technical team to eradicate any complacency at the top and promoted a winning mentality.

This enabled McLaren to transform its season, moving from a team that scored zero points from the opening two races to emerge as the most consistent and credible threat to Red Bull. This came as Aston lost its way developing the AMR23 to drop down the competitive order. The McLaren car upgrades that underpinned its upturn were all conceived with the old wind tunnel and before the new hires arrived. Without the gains, Norris would’ve plausibly been halfway out the door.

He says: “I really want to be a world champion… Of course, over the last few years, there's been a lot of tough ones. I still enjoyed it; I've always enjoyed being part of where I am and working with the people that I've worked with. But every now and then, you're going to have that little question of ‘Is this the place to be to achieve that goal?’

“In the back of my head every now and then was ‘Are we improving as much as what I feel like we should, am I giving myself the best opportunities?’… But with how we turned things around, and how Andrea turned things around last year…”

That’s what McLaren could achieve with the tools already at its disposal. But the ceiling should sit higher still. Rather than rely on renting Toyota’s facility in Cologne, the new on-site wind tunnel at the McLaren Technology Centre has been completed and calibrated to begin influencing the updates that will eventually make their way onto the 2024 car.

As of 1 January, Sanchez could officially begin his new McLaren job. So too did Rob Marshall, the long-time Red Bull chief engineering officer who joined as the engineering and design technical director in another coup. Given the drawn-out lead times in developing and manufacturing the 2024 car that will roll out for pre-season testing in Bahrain, there will be a six-month lag before their influence is truly felt. But the duo come with stellar CVs and a wealth of experience.

Since McLaren is still not operating at its full potential, little wonder Norris - like the rest of the paddock - is as optimistic about McLaren’s fortunes as he’s ever been.

The 2023 McLaren car upgrades that underpinned its upturn were all conceived with the old wind tunnel and before the new hires arrived

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The 2023 McLaren car upgrades that underpinned its upturn were all conceived with the old wind tunnel and before the new hires arrived

He goes on: “I definitely always wanted to be convinced McLaren is my future… Especially with how we turned things around last year, and with what we know, we can still achieve and do with even more things coming our way, in terms of personnel and infrastructure, there are still things which are coming online and just getting warmed up.

“I am part of the family and excited to be a part of that family, especially on the trajectory that we're at. I think it's been the most important factor of all of this and I'm excited to see where that continues to take us.

“Now, where am I most confident that I can actually achieve a world championship? If you asked me the beginning of last year, maybe it wouldn't have been McLaren. But now I think I'm more confident than ever in saying it's going to be McLaren.”

While there’s certainly a poetic element to Norris’ decision to remain faithful to McLaren, that loyalty is effectively little more than a sidebar for a driver with a finite career and an urge to win championships. Happily, though, staying put at McLaren is also the pragmatic choice given it appears to be firmly on the right path.

Staying put at McLaren is also the pragmatic choice given it appears to be firmly on the right path

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Staying put at McLaren is also the pragmatic choice given it appears to be firmly on the right path

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