The ring and jingle of slot machines, flocks of Elvis impersonators and, come 19 November, the scream of 20 Formula 1 cars as the Las Vegas Grand Prix finally kicks off – it’s all there to experience in Sin City. For one particularly plucky British team, Vegas is the chance to cap off a rollercoaster season in the series, with McLaren frontman Lando Norris jostling for a hard-fought fourth in the championship. Catching up with him at the Velocity Invitational – a luxury motorsport festival in California – just days before the big race, we chat risk, race strategy and running down the Vegas Strip at more than 200mph.
“You can do a lot to prepare – but nothing compares to the real thing,” says Norris, fresh off a flight into the US. “You get to Free Practice 1 and, within one or two laps, you almost pick up more than you do than walking the track and on a simulator,” he admits. With 13 podiums, including seven second-place finishes to his name, Norris is no stranger to the quirks of Formula 1, but Vegas is an entirely new challenge for the 24-year-old Brit.
Battling unusually cold temperatures and the narrow confides of a street track, Norris and his peers will have to get accustomed to the new, near-four-mile track that wraps its way around some of Vegas’s most iconic landmarks, including a flat-out, 1.18-mile section down the legendary Las Vegas Strip.
“It's the lowest downforce track of the season, so the car always feels worse,” he says. “On the street circuit, with cold temperatures, you need to understand how to get the tyres to work with low downforce – it's a big question for the team and for me.”
After a slow start to the season, McLaren – led by Norris, albeit closely followed by his rookie teammate, Oscar Piastri – has closed in on the runaway success of the Red Bull Racing team. What was once the ninth-fastest team on the grid has pulled itself up to be one of the closest and – most consistent – challengers to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. Though the top spot remains firmly in the hands of Verstappen – now three-time World Champion – all is still to play for as the drivers battle it out for the remaining top spots in the championship. With Norris currently neck and neck with seasoned pro Fernando Alonso, all eyes will be on the pair as they fight for fourth (which would be Norris's highest finish in Formula 1 to date) before the season closes out in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.
“I'll just go out and have fun,” says Norris, calmly. “The car is in a very good position and has surprised us on tracks we weren't expecting it to be good on, so I guess we’ll see.”
Helping Norris and Piastri along the way has been a host of upgrades that McLaren made to the car mid-way through the season. Now that the sport imposes budget caps on teams, the scope for further upgrades in Vegas is limited, with team boss, Zac Brown, having spent much of the in-season development fund earlier on, where, he says, “we get the biggest bang for our buck.”
Appearing unphased by the challenge that awaits him in Vegas, Norris's cool demeanour is helped by the fact he knows he’s not the only one heading into the unknown. “It’s a new track for everyone, so there’s a lot of opportunities – and we'll be using that to our advantage,” he says with a wry smile.
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