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How Lando Norris holds the ace card in F1’s driver market

Norris is one F1's hottest commodities, with the rumours of a Red Bull seat in 2025 continuing to persist

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Right now, F1’s driver market game of poker awaits its ace card to land. Lando Norris controls the game. 

Lando Norris has enjoyed a competitive 2023, will he be lured away from McLaren? (Image Credit: McLaren Racing Media)
Lando Norris has enjoyed a competitive 2023. Will he be lured away from McLaren? (Image Credit: McLaren Racing Media)

While a grand prix is often likened to a 200mph chess game, the driver market resembles poker. Team principals metaphorically sit at the table and hold their cards to their chests, waiting to pounce. The stakes are high, and one wrong move can end in disaster. Alpine’s Piasco farce last season will remain one of the worst cases of a strong hand played poorly for many years.

Get it right, however, and the rewards are sweet. Daniel Ricciardo’s sudden and dramatic defection from Red Bull to Renault in 2019 caught Red Bull off guard and saw Renault win silly season. Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul signing one of F1’s top-rated drivers was the equivalent of revealing a straight flush. Red Bull, by contrast, continues to feel the impact of losing the only driver who has come close to beating Verstappen regularly.

The current game is for the spoils in 2025. The players once again sit around the table and prepare to reveal their hands. The focus right now is on McLaren. Zak Brown holds the ace card, Lando Norris. Christian Horner wants him to force McLaren into a corner.

Why does Norris hold so much power in this game?
Lando Norris has enjoyed another strong season, including a recent run of three consecutive podiums (Image Credit: McLaren Racing Media)
Lando Norris has enjoyed another strong season, including a recent run of three consecutive podiums (Image Credit: McLaren Racing Media)

When a driver leaves a team or retires and a vacancy opens up, teams must act fast to get their intended replacement. Wait too long, and someone else will snatch them off you.

To prevent this, the hyped secret discussions occur in the pit lane throughout the year. Behind a motorhome or inside a driver’s room, these discussions aim to destabilise existing relationships or hook a potential future one. This works both ways, with in-demand drivers able to flirt with multiple teams.

Norris is one of F1’s hottest properties right now. Three consecutive podiums are testament to this and demonstrate his calibre. His stock is sky-high and is rated by rivals, pundits, and fans. The Briton is intelligent and knows his reputation on and off the track.

He is a PR dream for a team, using his sense of humour to light up interviews and showcase serious ambition. He commands a high social following for his Quadrant operation and continues to attract new fans to the sport.

Performance is political power in F1. Consistent performances give Norris substantial negotiation leverage with McLaren and the ability to flirt with other teams, should he want to.

As reported by Sky Sports, Alex Albon confirmed Norris has an “open invitation” to join Red Bull. Norris himself said he was “open” to the idea. Red Bull’s CEO and Team Principal Christian Horner continues to praise Norris in the media publicly, but is coy on the details of whether Norris is on his shopping list.

Courting has begun
Christian Horner and Lando Norris stand together on the podium in Japan (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Christian Horner and Lando Norris stand together on the podium in Japan (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Norris has been tight-lipped about any move away from McLaren as he prepares to start his 100th Grand Prix this weekend. His tenure at McLaren sees him join the list of longest-serving McLaren drivers. This short but illustrious list comprises Lewis Hamilton, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen, and David Coulthard.

McLaren acted fast at the start of 2022, tying Norris down until the end of 2025. In theory, he will now race in papaya for the next two seasons. While McLaren was never going to reveal who was courting its star driver, Red Bull is rumoured to be the party most interested in signing Norris. As pressure mounts on Sergio Perez, rumours continue to circle that we could see Norris in a Red Bull by 2025.

While F1 contracts exist for a reason, they are not watertight. Exit clauses or a simple (albeit expensive) buyout can usually resolve a driver leaving a team while still under contract. If Red Bull and Norris want to embark on a relationship, it will happen.

Courting a driver is a slow process. They need assurances and incentives and to know the equipment being raced is a match for their talents. On paper, a move to Red Bull seems like a no-brainer.

The question is, would Norris want to partner Max Verstappen in F1’s most cursed seat? The second Red Bull damaged Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon and now Sergio Perez. Leaving where he is the de-facto team leader for an environment that breaks drivers seems a risky decision at best.

Playing devil’s advocate, Norris will not willingly enter any agreement as a support driver. He is hungry for success and will question team orders if he believes he is being disadvantaged. He was distinctly unhappy being told to hold position in Qatar, as any driver would be. Red Bull will need to factor this into their equations if they choose to sign Norris.

How would this move affect the driver market?
A Lando Norris and Max Verstappen partnership at Red Bull would have consequences for F1's driver market (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Getty Images)
A Lando Norris and Max Verstappen partnership at Red Bull would have consequences for F1’s driver market (Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Getty Images)

While exciting for viewers, a Norris and Verstappen partnership could prove as volatile as Senna and Prost at McLaren in 1988 and 1989. Verstappen and Norris may be friends, but friendships evaporate when an F1 title is within reach. Look no further than the spectacular fallout of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes as evidence.

The impact on the driver market would be equally volatile. The poker game would enter full swing, with Brown needing an urgent replacement for one of F1’s current best drivers. He will undoubtedly have started flirting with drivers, keeping them on the hook. But who could fill the void left by Norris?

Attempting to guess how F1’s driver market will play out is like trying to gauge the team’s competitive order from the first winter test. It is impossible to know what happens behind the scenes.

When Eddie Jordan graced the paddock, he knew who was going where sometimes to the point of knowing when the announcement was coming. Sadly, these days, it’s all just guesswork based on how persistent rumours are.

But, given the contract situation of drivers, it is possible to attempt to piece together the puzzle should Norris leave McLaren. Given McLaren’s astonishing rise through the order this season, Brown can realistically target one of the top drivers.

Two drivers out of contract at the end of next season are Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. The latter is unlikely to leave Ferrari, so is a Sainz return to McLaren plausible? If McLaren can continue its current form, yes. Sainz is now a race winner and will want equipment to challenge for more wins. He knows McLaren and has fond memories of his time with the team.

If Sainz opts to remain with Ferrari, Brown must get inventive. George Russell could be bought out of his remaining year at Mercedes to partner Piastri. Russell is also preparing for his 100th grand prix and would bring experience. This would be a left-field signing for all involved, but if McLaren remains faster than Mercedes next season, this could be one of recent memory’s most surprising but logical moves.

Then there is Alex Albon. Reborn after his nightmare stint at Red Bull, his stock is also rising. Crucially, his contract runs out at the end of 2024. Albon in a McLaren would be fantastic to see, and on paper, it makes sense. Williams is desperate to keep him and build their future around him, so expect a contract extension to be urgently thrashed out in the off-season to prevent Brown from snapping him up.

Almost calling time

These driver moves are possible but need the ace card to land. Horner and Brown are battling for Norris, looking up from their hand to psyche off each other.

The quiet before the storm has begun. Lando Norris may be all smiles in the paddock, but right now, he faces a choice. McLaren is now out of excuses. The new wind tunnel is operational; the car is now a contender. It has poached Chief Engineering Officer Rob Marshall from Red Bull and Chief Engineer of Vehicle Concept David Sanchez from Ferrari. Both start in January 2024.

The team has thrown its weight behind Norris, going all in on its wager to keep him racing in papaya. Red Bull is F1’s top team, and the allure will be challenging to resist. Only Norris can control where he lands in the game.

Both Brown and Horner want Norris. If his ace card falls to either team, it will significantly help its ambition to win titles. For now, the game slowly continues, preparing to reach its climax. Who will have the best hand and the ace when calling time comes?

Feature Image Credit: McLaren Racing Media 

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