Lando Norris' quest for an F1 win reaching uncharted waters

The McLaren driver is thriving in 2023, but the top step of the podium remains elusive

Lando Norris is coming off his second straight second-place finish. (Androniki Christodoulou/Reuters)
Lando Norris is riding a string of podium finishes. (Androniki Christodoulou/Reuters)

As Lando Norris navigates the best season of his Formula 1 career, he's getting accustomed to finishing in second place.

Over his last nine races, he's come in second four times, most recently at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sept. 23. Norris has finished third in the last two races for a string of four straight podiums. That's an impressive showing for a driver who had only managed one second-place finish in his first 82 races at the F1 level — without a win to his name.

The lack of a victory for Norris reached a historic milestone in Japan as his career point total (587) is now the largest ever accumulated by a driver who hasn't won a race.

It's a bit of a complicated statistic to unpack as it indicates good and bad things about the 23-year-old Englishman. The unavoidable truth is that the goal of any F1 driver is to win races, and Norris has been unable to do so. He also watched a teammate — Daniel Ricciardo — earn a victory during that time, although the two didn't battle each other at Monza in 2021 because the team didn't want to risk a crash.

On the flip side, Norris wouldn't hold the record for points without a win if he wasn't consistently producing strong finishes. One of the best measures of a driver is how he performs against his teammates, and Norris has outscored his by 137 points in his career — more than a point per race. That's impressive considering he's driven alongside the accomplished veteran duo of Carlos Sainz and Ricciardo, plus heralded rookie Oscar Piastri.

Few doubt that Norris has the talent to finally get a win, although the five second-places he's accumulated might give the false impression that's he's knocking on the door. In 2023 there has been such a massive gap between Max Verstappen and the rest of the field that coming second doesn't necessarily mean you're close to matching the defending double world champion.

Norris has finished behind Verstappen by at least 19 seconds twice, and on one other occasion — the British Grand Prix — his gap to the Dutchman (3.78 seconds) was artificially low thanks to a late safety car. That said, he does deserve credit for beating Verstappen off the start and leading that race for the first four laps.

The only real chance Norris has had to win in 2023 came in Singapore when Red Bull was MIA and he finished less than a second behind his former teammate, Sainz. Even that result is a little bit misleading as Sainz hung close to Norris on purpose, giving Norris DRS to help him hold off a pair of hard-charging Mercedes drivers on fresher Pirelli rubber.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the young Brit's best chance at a win came in a race he finished seventh. Norris appeared on track for a victory at the 2021 Russian Grand Prix until some late-lap rain got in the way. When his rivals pitted for intermediate tires, Norris insisted on staying out to maintain track position.

The result wasn't pretty.

Now Norris finds himself in an interesting position. He projects to have one of the best cars on the grid in any given race down the stretch in 2023 — and any wobble on Verstappen's end could open the door for him.

At the same time, it's possible that he already missed the boat on the one opportunity he could've grasped all year thanks to Verstappen's dominance.

Things will get a bit cloudier after this season ends. Norris is under contract with McLaren for two more seasons, and it's worth wondering if they can replicate the success of the 2023 car.

After all, this is a team that has a single win to its name since Lewis Hamilton left after the 2012 season. Between 2013 and 2022, McLaren finished in the top three in the constructors championship just once (2020) and that streak is likely to continue this year due to the awful start the team got off to.

Norris is linked to a car that's been good more often than it's been great for more than a decade, and it hasn't always been good. It's possible that 2023 is the beginning of a new chapter for McLaren, but the team might also be exploiting unusual down years from Ferrari and Mercedes — plus a total no-show from Alpine.

It's well within the realm of possibility that Norris continues to be that guy who is clearly good enough to win but can't seem to do it. If he's unable to manage an opportunistic victory down the stretch in 2023, then all bets are off for his medium-term future.

Because F1 contracts aren't all out in the open, his longer-term prospects are less clear. Mercedes has locked in Hamilton and George Russell through 2025, which means Norris might become a free agent just as the Silver Arrows are looking to start over.

Ferrari's duo — Sainz and Charles Leclerc — are rumored to be staying put through 2024, and the biggest prize in the sport, the Red Bull seat alongside Verstappen, should open up after 2024 as well. Based on the way Norris is driving, it's possible one of those teams would consider trying to buy out the last year of his deal and bring him aboard for 2025, but that would cost a king's ransom.

Back in 2017, Mercedes paid Williams £10 million to release Valtteri Bottas, and the Finnish driver was coming off a season where he finished eighth in the drivers standings and managed one podium.

It may be too early to contemplate where Norris could head in the future, but one thing is clear: he has shown enough in 2023 that one of these days he'll either find a way to win in his McLaren — or earn himself on a seat with a team capable of helping him reach the mountaintop.

Sooner or later, the record for most points without a victory will likely return to its rightful owner, Nico Hülkenberg, who doesn't even have a podium in 200 races.