The key steps for Lando Norris to become a genuine F1 title contender

Beaming in the novelty and adulation of his first victory in Formula 1, Lando Norris was not going to miss a beat in celebrating over the past fortnight. Partying with American sports stars, check. Two rounds of golf at Augusta National, check. Appearances on This Morning and Radio 1, check.

But, ultimately, you’re only as good as your last race. And now the fast-paced, hard-nosed world of F1 has moved on from Miami.

So to this weekend and the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, named after the Italian region where the famous Imola circuit is situated, 28 miles east of Bologna, and hosts a year on from the event’s cancellation due to heavy flooding. A track where Norris has gone well in the past – podiums in 2021 and 2022 – is a near-ideal follow-up from the highest of Florida highs, as F1 heads to Europe for the first time in 2024.

“I celebrated appropriately for the occasion,” the McLaren driver said, at Thursday’s media day. “But it’s now another weekend, I’m prepared and ready to go. I still think about it [Miami] a lot but at the same time, you have to turn your focus to the next weekend and hopefully try and replicate a similar thing.”

“We are better suited to Imola, it’s been one of our most successful tracks as a team and for me as a driver. I was quickest on track [in Miami], the car made some good steps forward and we have more things coming in the future.”

For Norris, Miami would have felt like relief and vindication. Many observers were surprised when the 24-year-old extended his contract at McLaren in January, to the 2026 season and beyond. This commitment looked more questionable when, a week later, a 2025 seat at Mercedes opened up courtesy of Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari.

Had Norris put pen-to-paper too soon? Six races into the new season, the early evidence suggests not.

Credit must go to team principal Andrea Stella, who has turned the fortunes of McLaren around in the past year in tandem with chief executive Zak Brown. A series of upgrades last summer launched McLaren from the midfield up into the leading contenders behind Red Bull and their latest 10-part car rejuvenation – which only Norris utilised in Miami but team-mate Oscar Piastri will also benefit from this weekend – saw the papaya claim a first victory since Daniel Ricciardo’s win at Monza in 2021.

Hold your horses, though. When Norris was asked where he now thinks McLaren are in the pecking order, he was not in any mood to exaggerate: “We’re third.”

Room for improvement, then, both for the team and the driver. Norris insisted last week at McLaren HQ in Woking that the team should be targeting a title challenge next year and Norris should be at the forefront of that foray.

As for this year, Red Bull and Max Verstappen are still the undisputed favourites, having won four out of six races. Despite Adrian Newey’s departure and the Christian Horner saga playing out behind-the-scenes, they still have fundamentally the quickest car. Like home team Ferrari, they too bring an upgraded car to Imola this weekend.

Assuming it works – a fair assumption, given their two-year dominance of these regulations – their lead could well be extended once more.

But Norris’ next steps should be clear and uncomplicated: consistency. Often the Brit from Bristol has cut a frustrated figure on a Saturday, admitting minor errors that have made a detrimental difference to his grid position. Norris’ race-craft and race-pace is excellent but to challenge Verstappen race-by-race, he will need to improve his qualifying displays. A safety car won’t aid his cause every week.

A point he was all too aware of, when asked about the next target on Thursday. “It’s only one race, I want another one (win),” he said.

“It wasn’t like I was on pole and led from the beginning, that’s the next target: to be at the front at the start. Not rely on a safety car. Formula 1 is not about one weekend; you learn about a bigger picture.”

Perhaps Norris can be inspired this weekend a little by the aura of Ayrton Senna, which lingers at every turn of the Imola circuit 30 years on from the Brazilian’s fatal crash at Tamburello corner. Senna won all three of his championships with McLaren and, on Sunday prior to the grand prix, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel will drive Senna’s 1993 McLaren – the MP4/8 – around the track in one of many commemorative moments planned over the course of the weekend.

Should he nail his one-lap pace, Norris will be in prime position to take advantage of bold strategy calls and slices of luck once more on raceday. And from there, the opportunity to add more grand prix victories could well fall his way. Norris’ best final standing in five previous seasons in F1 was sixth, in 2021 and 2023. Yet armed with a rapidly improving car, a top-three spot should be his target come the waving of the final chequered flag in Abu Dhabi in December.


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