Jolyon Palmer column: Lando Norris living up to future champion billing

By Jolyon PalmerFormer Renault driver on BBC Radio 5 Live
Jolyon Palmer

A British rookie coming through the ranks at McLaren, and pushing his team-mate - a more experienced Spaniard - at the start of his Formula 1 career. Sounds like the famous story of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in 2007, right?

But no, this is Lando Norris, Britain's latest impressive rookie, who has been superb in his opening eight races. And Sunday's French Grand Prix was another example of it.

Qualifying has been a real point of strength for Norris so far in his F1 career - right from the off, when he stuck the McLaren eighth on the grid on his debut in Australia. And lining up fifth in France, in a McLaren, was a superb achievement.

Norris' race was a struggle because he was battling a hydraulic issue with 20 laps remaining. But he managed to look good in dealing with that, too.

His car started losing performance. Initially, he had problems with the DRS overtaking aid, but moved on to slower gear shifts, reduced power steering and - more critically in the end - differential issues, which meant the car became difficult to drive, with snappy oversteer and a loss of traction.

I've had hydraulic failures before but usually they are sudden-onset and they rule you out of the race immediately. Indeed, two of my grands prix ended on the formation lap as the hydraulic issue meant I couldn't even get around to start the race.

So, on the one hand, Norris was maybe fortunate to make it to the finish at all; on the other, the manner with which he did so was extremely impressive.

Despite his car ailing progressively, he managed to keep a consistent pace and his rivals out of range, until the final lap, where he finally succumbed to pressure from Daniel Ricciardo's Renault, and ended up slipping from seventh to ninth.

But the points finish and subsequent vote by the fans as 'driver of the day' - a fairly meaningless but at least nice acknowledgement of Norris' achievements - were the least the 19-year-old Briton deserved from the weekend.

Was losing Alonso a blessing in disguise?

Fernando Alonso on the podium of the Le Mans 24 Hours
Fernando Alonso (left) won the Le Mans 24 Hours race for the second year in a row on Sunday with Toyota

Norris' strong start to life in Formula 1 comes at the same time as McLaren look like they are finally getting their act together after years in the doldrums.

Locking out the third row of the grid with Norris and team-mate Carlos Sainz was proof of that. They out-qualified a Ferrari and a Red Bull fair and square - and almost got the lead Red Bull of Max Verstappen as well.

The way it's looking now, McLaren losing their star big-name driver, Fernando Alonso, at the end of last year, may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Team boss Zak Brown would have done everything he could to retain the two-time world champion, but Alonso opted for retirement.

With Norris and Sainz - who switched from rivals Renault - the fresh approach of two young, hungry and hard-working drivers seems to have lifted a cloud that surrounded the team.

While nobody can doubt Alonso's credentials - he still goes down as one of F1's all-time greats - his divisive nature in the team and his work ethic, particularly in the latter McLaren years when things weren't going well, can be questioned.

If things were bad at McLaren for Alonso, he could be quick to make the team seem like a joke in the media. He played a major role in the downfall of the McLaren-Honda partnership, with numerous public bashings of the Japanese engine manufacturer.

Even up to last year, the performance of the car wasn't good, and Alonso was quick to tell the world.

And while, again, nobody can doubt what he did in the car - he destroyed highly rated team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne into F1 oblivion - what can be argued is that McLaren made no progress in his tenure whatsoever, even slipping back from midfielders to having the slowest car of all at the end of last year.

Now with a new, young line-up, the team are benefiting not from Alonso's experience or, probably, technical knowhow just yet, but instead from a fresh energy. The synergy of the team is clear to see.

An invigorating breath of fresh air

Lando Norris
Lando Norris was forced to retire in Canada earlier this month because of overheating brakes

While Alonso looked downbeat for years, Norris is only ever seen smiling around the paddock. Even after his McLaren car let him down in Canada with overheating brakes and ultimately a suspension failure, depriving him of a points finish, Norris was jovial after the race and his team even threw him into the lake alongside the Montreal circuit.

Can you imagine Alonso's race team chucking him into a mucky, old Olympic rowing lake after his retirement from the Canadian race 12 months ago from a similar position?

Even in the unlikely event that Alonso would have seen the funny side of it, the team wouldn't have dared to do it for fear they might upset their star man.

This year, though, McLaren is a tale of people who want to be there, who want to make the best of the job and are willing to work hard - but who also want to enjoy the journey, whatever the score.

Norris and Sainz have a very harmonious relationship, which is a boost to any team.

Norris even compromised his own race in Monaco to help Sainz secure good points, while Sainz seems to be thriving in a change of atmosphere as well, and has delivered numerous good drives, including finishing a strong sixth in France.

Impressing on every level

Lando Norris
Lando Norris has shown he is capable of handling pressure

However, much like Alonso in 2007, Sainz must be wary of his rookie British team-mate. Norris leads 5-3 in qualifying head to heads this year, and 4-1 in the past five qualifying sessions. The new boy is gaining momentum all the time.

Is Sainz Alonso levels of good? Probably not. Is Norris Lewis Hamilton levels of good? It remains to be seen.

But we should remember that times have changed since Hamilton arrived in F1. He came into the best team at the time, with the benefit of a huge amount of pre-season testing.

Since then, McLaren have slipped down the pecking order, and testing has been limited to just four days per driver pre-season. This makes the job of rookies significantly harder than it was when Hamilton embarked on his maiden F1 campaign 12 years ago.

Nevertheless, Norris is immediately showing all the traits of a future champion.

When another touted future champion, Verstappen, arrived in F1 in 2015, he too was team-mate to Sainz. Both were rookies in the Toro Rosso team.

It's easy to forget that Verstappen and Sainz were neck and neck in a similar manner to Sainz and Norris - only now, Sainz is an established driver with four years' experience to benefit from.

Norris has already shown a willingness to be a team player in Monaco. He has clearly shown he has the raw speed. But he has also shown he is capable of handling pressure.

Not only the pressures of performing in the spotlight of a debut season in F1 - which are obvious - but also the way, while battling an ailing car, he did not get flustered while on the radio to the team, and worked out the best way to deal with the problem.

For me, though, the clearest insight into how relaxed Norris is came just before the lights went out on the grid.

Lining up fifth after his best qualifying performance, looking ahead at only Verstappen, Charles Leclerc's Ferrari and the two Mercedes, and with Sainz and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel behind, for most, the pressure would be immense.

But as the McLaren team were waiting to fire up his car, Norris could be seen just bobbing his head to the music which blared around the Paul Ricard circuit. No hint of pressure.

His relaxed approach means he's fast becoming a popular driver in F1, and while he still has areas to work on - such as his first laps of races - right now it looks like he has the talent and desire to back up those 'future champion' claims.