Motorsport

How McLaren’s Lando Norris impacted lives by opening up about mental health

In over 70 years of Formula One, there haven’t been many drivers like Lando Norris. He’s quick, but that’s nothing new at the top level of motor racing. What sets him apart is how open he has been about his struggles away from racing.

It’s easy to assume Norris has everything you could want from life. He’s 21, at the start of his third season with iconic team McLaren, and is fourth in the championship having been one of the standout drivers of the opening four races.

The Englishman is quickly becoming one of F1’s most popular drivers.

At 19, he was a joker when he arrived to F1 in 2019, whose media appearances often descended into farce or hysterical laughter. One memorable example was when now teammate Daniel Ricciardo was reduced Norris to tears by laughing at a joke whispered to him at a televised press conference ahead of the 2019 British Grand Prix.

It wasn’t all fun and games. While the Norris you see on TV is a lot like the Norris you get when the cameras are switched off, some of it was an act. The McLaren driver struggled with anxiety and sleepless nights as a rookie.

He became remarkably candid talking about this issue, and the coronavirus pandemic provided a unique opportunity to open up about it further. Norris, an avid gamer, has 846,000 followers on Twitch — he broke numerous streaming records during the three-month delay to 2020 F1’s season — and a further four million followers across Instagram and Twitter.

Norris told ESPN in an interview for Mental Health Awareness Week he felt people appreciated the fact he was just being himself.

“I was different to a lot of Formula One drivers, being open about everything really, being a bit more fun, a bit more jokey, probably more just like a normal person rather than some robot walking around the paddock,” he said.

“I guess people already like that and it cheered a lot of people up, me having fun and seeing someone joyful and making people laugh.

“Every now and then I scroll through messages I get on Instagram just from random people, different people around the world who have messaged me. A lot of them are about them suffering with mental health, especially in the last year and a bit with COVID-19 — that’s something people have struggled with a lot more.”

The more Norris openly spoke about mental health, the more it resonated with people.

“I was getting messages from people saying how I’d impacted them and how me being me… how I’d changed their lives or, I guess as deep as saying, they were thinking about suicide and stuff like that, saying how I’d had an impact on changing that. Saying they’re enjoying their lives a lot more.

“Seeing a lot of those messages and learning about that made me realise I can use my platform a lot more to speak up about it because it’s things I’ve struggled with in the past, and [it’s about] knowing and learning how much of a difference I can have on people around the world.

“That’s when I started speaking out about it a bit more and realising that maybe it’s not always the nicest thing to talk about but it’s something where I can help a lot of other people out.”

Like with any athlete, it’s easy to think Formula One drivers are indestructible superheroes. Norris’ attitude out of the car masked the fact that he carried with him the same mental hang-ups many people struggle with on a daily basis.

Writing for mental health awareness charity MIND about the nerves and anxiety he suffered in that first season, Norris said: “Despite making it to F1 — something I had dreamt of ever since I began racing — I found myself questioning my own self-belief: worrying if I had what it took, comparing myself with my teammate and other drivers.

“It screws with your head. It’s tough to deal with and I’m sure many other drivers have struggled with it in the past.”

It was a remarkably candid confession from a young man at the start of his career in a championship like Formula One, a pressure-cooker environment where drivers race at speeds upwards of 220 mph and where every tenth of a second is crucial.

Not every F1 driver shares this outlook. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the man battling Lewis Hamilton for this year’s championship title, provided what could be considered the old-school view last year when asked about his mental health. And he isn’t the only driver to hold the contrary view about giving away vulnerabilities to rivals.

“Why would you say your weakness, even if you have one?” Verstappen replied. “Why would you explain that? I would never say those kind of things.”

Although their outlook on this topic may differ, there are similarities between Verstappen and Norris. Both prodigiously talented at a young age, they arrived in F1 with the label of “future world champion,” but Norris seemed up against it from the beginning.

He joined one of F1’s sleeping giants, McLaren, who have not won a race since 2012 but are still one of the most successful teams in the sport’s history. It’s enormous, state-of-the-art headquarters in Woking, England is lined with the team’s championship-winning cars of the past, including the three Ayrton Senna drove to titles in 1988, 1989 and 1991 as an example of the weight of expectation Norris suddenly found placed on his shoulders.

“You never have that pressure [in the junior ranks],” Norris told ESPN. “You don’t have a thousand people at the factory and people at the track basically relying on you to do well. You might have 10, 15, 20 people, maybe, in the team.

“F1 is just very different and you’ve got a lot more eyes on you, a lot of fans back at home, fans in the grandstand, you don’t have that side of it until you get to Formula One. It’s very different.”

As he wrote in that article for MIND, Norris feared his F1 dream would fall apart before it had really started. This nightmare sadly played out for one of Norris’ oldest friends, Alexander Albon, who struggled for form at Red Bull and was replaced by Sergio Perez for this season.

Norris did not want to talk specifically about Albon’s situation and his comments could be applied to plenty of drivers who failed to live up to lofty expectations on their arrival to the championship.

– Albon: I want to be in F1 more than any other driver
– Hamilton: Gasly deserves another shot at Red Bull

“You make one or two mistakes and you can get slaughtered in the press or on social media and things can suddenly go very wrong for you. That’s been evident in the past few years, with different drivers that very quickly things can look bad and if that starts to have a bad effect on you and the way you think, you start thinking you can’t perform at the top level and that’s a big spiral that’s very hard to get out of. I think a lot of people don’t realise the difficulties of it.

“All of these things you don’t tend to think about do have a big effect. It’s the same as the top level of football or the athletics, or anything like that. Every small thing can add up and make a big difference in your performance.”

When asked how he’s managed to avoid the dangers of that spiral, he said: “Take it on the chin, look at what I did wrong and move on. I think I’m better at doing that much quicker rather than dwelling on something for the rest of the weekend and thinking I messed everything up.

“That’s important, my confidence, my mentality, it’s all much clearer, easier to think about and process stuff. It’s easier for me to say, I need to do better ‘here and here,’ and that’s what I work on.

“In 2019 it was just ‘I’ve got to do better here, here, here, here, here, here, here’…. The list goes on, and that’s when things start getting complicated and you don’t know what to focus on, and it becomes really tough to process.

More simply, Norris has learned how to use his spare time to clear his head of a lot of those doubts. During his rookie season he started using the popular Headspace meditation app. “A lot of it starts with sleep, mentally being in the correct space, top of your game, everything like that. The meditation part is the biggest thing to break away from racing.”

The tranquillity of meditation feels a world away from the frenetic, fast-paced world of motor racing. The same can be said of another of Norris’ new hobbies — last year, in a bid to get out of the house more often when the regulations allowed, he started to play golf more regularly.

“It’s very peaceful, a lot more quiet than racing, a lot less chaotic, it’s a nice way to get out and do something different but still give me that competitive side and competitive mentality which I love.

“I love it. I see it in a lot of ways like racing. I get frustrated when I’m not going well enough. Everyone can hit a good shot sometimes but it’s doing it consistently.

“It’s like everyone can probably do a good lap sometimes, it’s about being able to nail a good lap every single time you go out. It’s a similar mentality to golf. You can beat yourself up sometimes but you can go into that next corner, or the next hole, or the next shot, and you can nail it.

“It takes up a lot of my time nowadays.”

The timing of our interview was apt. In the 48 hours after we spoke, Norris showed his renewed mental strength. The day after a mistake in qualifying at Imola cost him third on the grid for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Norris turned in the performance of his young career for his second visit to the F1 podium.

The Formula One season continues with the Monaco Grand Prix on May 30.


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