Lando Norris’ comment regarding his lack of sympathy for drivers on the edge of losing their drive may have come across as brutal, but it was nothing if not honest.
To admonish him would betray the truth exposed on track and Norris deserves better than that.
“I don’t feel like you have to have sympathy for any driver because they’ve not been able to do as good a job. People will probably hate me for saying it.”
– Lando Norris (August 25th, 2022; Spa-Francorchamps)
Even if the result had been a foregone conclusion for several weeks, the split between Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren was always going to set tongues wagging.
A conclusion had to be reached and – it would seem – the team having grown tired of Ricciardo’s disappointing performance results and the Australian’s desire to be bought out of his contract, that finality came in the form of a mutual break-up.
Yet for all of the prepared statements, Lando Norris’ unfiltered response to Ricciardo’s departure cut significantly. He continued: “It’s not my job to focus on someone else. I’m not a driver coach. I’m not here to help and do those kind of things. I’m here to perform at my absolute best. And that’s about it,” before adding, “It’s also the case that if I don’t perform well for a few years that it can also be the end of my career and the end of me driving in Formula One.”
Some words are always going to bite. There is little comfort in dressing them in a kindly preface, designed to soften blows, when a brutally exposed truth – from an honest base – can circumvent faltering discussions.
The online response was typical and expected. Norris – a young man ravaged by honesty, then savaged by social media. Is it little wonder that few are prepared to be true to themselves, let alone anyone else when the internet’s reactionary hellfire burns all who breathe?
At these times, one could almost understand the desire to be an actor, where one wears a façade and dresses themselves up as another, shadowing all evidence of self from light. From this point on, anything goes, as part-time personalities address audiences, revelling in the virtue of the masquerade.
Sportspeople do not have the luxury of such concealment. They wear themselves and their souls always, even when we don’t want them to and when they spill words that do not fit into the audience’s framed impression of them, those at the other end lash out.
In the context of the audience view of motorsport, racing drivers are mannequins, with near empty bodies and souls. Where the audience can, a picture of a personality is formed, based on extracts, non-contextual snippets and soundbites, as public traits are blurred and misunderstood to be private notions of consciousness.
Personality and individuality is buried and the human inside is reset with a narrative that chimes better to the watching eye. A being – not a person – in constructed and placed within the prism of our belief system.
As soon as the personality steps out of that prism, they are punished. By commenting on Ricciardo’s situation in the way he did, Norris stepped out of the prism and the audience reacted in parallel.
Was Norris right to not feel sympathy for Ricciardo’s plight? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter; Norris is a piece on the board – a key one, but still a piece, but as his prowess and reputation have grown, the weight of his words has grown.
While Norris’ comments may appear to have come across as brutal, but they are no more cutting than those made by team CEO Zak Brown Sky Sports’ online show Any Driven Monday following the Spanish Grand Prix in May. “We’re trying everything we can,” said the American. “Short of [Ricciardo’s victory at] Monza and a few races, it’s generally not kind of met his or our expectations, as far as what we were expecting.”
Brown also remarked about the closeness of teammate at various other teams in the field, noting that his expected Ricciardo’s performance to be far closer than that off Norris on a regular basis.
Yet this has not happened. Ricciardo has been out-performed regularly, and often by significant margins. At a time when McLaren sit atop a midfield fight that is at its tightest since the World Championship’s inception, the Australian’s lack of results has cost the team dearly.
Despite that brilliant win at Monza last year, the one-sided nature of McLaren’s point-scoring record did a great deal of damage to the team’s run at 3rd in the Constructor’s Championship – a position they would eventually lose to Ferrari, as the Italian’s soared in the final quarter of the year.
The situation is tougher in 2022, but with Norris once again pulling the vast majority of McLaren’s points again, the team is in danger of losing the battle for 4th with Alpine. Given the huge investment McLaren have made with Ricciardo over the past two years and the significant pay-out that is still to come, the return has not been good enough.
Daniel Ricciardo is still a quality drive and a fast one at that, but this relationship with McLaren has not worked out for either party. This is not to say his career in Formula One is finished, for he may still gel with another team and rebuild his reputation, but given how advanced his career is, Ricciardo’s chance for a top seat is long gone.
Should he get another driver for 2023, he will likely be bidding for scraps.