It’s Thursday after the Russian Grand Prix, and after spending a day in the McLaren factory unpicking the crushing loss of what would have been his maiden F1 victory, Lando Norris isn’t at home feeling sorry for himself or out on the golf course with his mates. He’s in Italy, first at the South Garda Karting track to dust off his karting overalls, then at the Adria Karting Raceway to watch practice for a round of the WSK Open Cup, a high-level international karting series for kids as young as 11.
It’s the first time Norris has stepped foot in a karting paddock in years, such is the busy life of an F1 driver, but the surroundings remain very familiar to him. He spent seven seasons racing in karts. He was pretty good at it, too, winning the European Championship in 2013 followed by the world title in 2014 – and many of the faces who helped guide him through his karting education, such as Ricky Flynn, are still heavily involved.
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Norris slipped right back into his life as an 11-year-old, catching up with old friends, chatting set-up with mechanics and getting back behind the wheel of a machine that got him hooked on racing and started him on the path to Formula 1 podium finisher.
But this trip wasn’t just a social visit. The kart he was driving was branded with his initials and in the two colours – yellow and blue – that have become synonymous with brand ‘Lando Norris’. This was to mark the launch of a new karting team. HIS karting team. Following in the footsteps of Fernando Alonso – whose kart Norris himself drove – and Charles Leclerc.
“It’s a bit surreal,” says the 21-year-old when we chat in a grandstand overlooking the bumpy South Garda Karting track where he has clocked up thousands of laps over the years. “This track is where I grew up, where I came to do one of my first European races. It has brought back a lot of memories.
“I was racing a different kart then, one of Fernando Alonso’s, and for a young boy that was pretty cool. Now I’m in the position where some of the kids here who are driving around could soon get to drive my kart. It’s a cool feeling to have, that you’re making people smile, and you have something you know will hopefully help younger kids grow up and experience racing.”
The set-up for LN Racing Kart is bringing Norris back full circle, as he’s putting his faith in the same people who backed and mentored him in karting. OTK Kart Group will manufacture the kart, while Ricky Flynn Motorsport – who helped Norris “achieve good things and helped me learn so much about racing” – will run the operation.
Is this project a way of Norris giving back to the people who supported him and played a role in fulfilling his dream of becoming a F1 driver? “Absolutely,” he says. “In any way I can give back, in any way I can help people, I’m happy to – I like doing that, especially with people who helped me. It’s nice to be able to give something back.
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“To see kids growing up using my karts and going on to hopefully win, a very small part of me feels part of that, and I’ve sort of helped them in a way. I’m not going to say when people win now, it’s all on me – I won’t accept that. But to have this input and addition of the team, and have the team who are running it, is pretty cool.”
Motor racing is expensive. It costs around €300,000 for a single season in karting. You can spend far more if you want plenty of sets of new tyres or new parts. And that figure only rises as you progress onto the single-seater ladder.
That initial six-figure sum rules out a large group of kids ever having the chance to see if they have what it takes to become the next Lando Norris or Lewis Hamilton. It’s why projects like Norris’ karting team increase the odds of finding a needle in the haystack.
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“A lot of boys and more so girls now are getting into racing, so the more we can help that, the better,” says Norris. “Everyone knows, or needs to know, that motor racing is very expensive. It’s not something everyone can do, sadly. I wish that wasn’t the case, I wish anyone was able to come into this sport like football or tennis where you can pick up a football or a tennis racket and a ball – they are so accessible to anyone in the world, but motor racing isn’t, sadly.
“Anything I can add to that to allow more boys, more girls to take part in racing if they can, and help them achieve their goals, then I’d love to be part of that. It’s a cool thing to be part of and see over the next few years.”
While Norris hasn’t been to a karting paddock for a while, that hasn’t stopped him getting back into a kart when time allows, including a couple of days of hard testing at South Garda Karting with Flynn to sharpen him up for his Formula 1 race debut with McLaren in 2019.
It’s a brutal, bumpy track, with a lot of corners that demand your constant attention. The layout gets your reflexes going, builds your physical fitness and focuses your mind.
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It’s why Norris keeps going back for more, and why he says karting was critical to his racing grounding by giving him the skills he needed to progress through the motorsport ladder.
“If I went straight into cars, I probably wouldn’t be in F1,” he says. “Karting helps you learn so much, like how to go run a track quick, how to – in a more advanced way – use the throttle and brake, maximise the steering, set up the kart, look into the data comparing you and your team mates.
“Subconsciously, there are so many things you just have which are engrained because this is step one to becoming a potential F1 driver, or race driver in general. So many things you learn here are just part of what I do every single day I drive an F1 car. Because it’s so engrained, and you do it for so long, and it’s the basics, you don’t think of it. The fact I know when to brake and when to throttle, simply it starts here.”
When you ask Norris about his karting days, a smile stretches across his face. For him, those days were among the best of his life. He would drive Wednesday through Sunday and spend just two days at home, trying to catch up on his schoolwork.
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It was a tough lifestyle, spending his time mostly on the road, but as he says, karting was “part of my life”. He adds: “It is not something you can do easily for fun if you want to get to this level. I loved it so much I didn’t want to stop.
“Karting is one of the best times in racing. A lot of my friends now are people I met from karting, less so are people I grew up with at school as I was never back home! Karting at that age is such a social sport, you don’t necessarily see the competitive side of it at such a young age, when you’re 11, 12, 13.
“You don’t see the ‘enemy’ side of it, which as you grow older, you do start to see more of. At that age, you go there, you have fun there with your mates, you get to drive around all day and have fun and try to win races.”
So what’s the goal for LN Racing Kart? Formula 1 remains Norris’ 100% focus – “that’s where I’m putting all my effort into” as he sets his sights on regularly “delivering and winning races” – but together with a close group who have helped launch his eSports team and now the kart project, he hopes he can help the next generation follow in his footsteps.
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“[I hope] to be part of the development of people’s futures, of kids who have an ambition to get into F1 and to allow as many people as possible who are starting karting or joining karting at whatever age, to try and help them get to F1,” he says. “I want to be the best team, have the best drivers and so on. If I can be part of it, that will make me happy.”