Lando Norris part of a new generation of entertaining and socially conscious British athletes

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Lando Norris qualified on pole but failed to capitalise in Sochi (AP)
Lando Norris qualified on pole but failed to capitalise in Sochi (AP)

“Unhappy. Just... unhappy.”

Those were the only despondent words a tearful Lando Norris could muster from under his umbrella in the media pen of the Sochi Autodrom after seeing his shot at a first F1 victory washed away by the Russian rain on Sunday afternoon.

The McLaren driver stormed to a sensational pole position on Saturday and dominated the vast majority of the race too before a late deluge led to him spinning out just two laps from the finish, allowing Lewis Hamilton and his intermediate tyres to dance their way to the top step of the podium instead.

When it rains, it pours, and Norris ultimately stumbled home in seventh position, left to rue his and his team’s decision to stay out on circuit with slick tyres when the conditions were deteriorating rapidly. It was not only Norris left in tears, either, with staff in the McLaren garage consoling each other as Hamilton crossed the line.

The 21-year-old Norris came home second behind team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in the previous race at Monza a fortnight ago and has been threatening to take pole positions and race victories all season long, having taken four podiums in 2021 so far.

It seemed almost certain that he would be tasting the winner’s champagne for the first time with 10 laps left to go in Sochi, the combination of his strong pace on the hard tyres, skill in maintaining a stable lead ahead of Hamilton, and composure over the radio all strong indications of a young driver not only capable of winning races on merit, but comfortable handling the pressure too.

When the rain came Norris made a brave but fundamentally incorrect call in trying to stick with the dry tyres, which he will learn from in future and will give him strong experience to draw on when he is undoubtedly leading the field in similar circumstances at some stage in the future.

Hamilton’s win was his 100th in the sport, a staggering achievement that few believed would ever be possible for a driver to accomplish. But pretty much all of the reaction afterwards, including from the eight-time world champion himself, focussed on the near-miss for a young driver who is immensely popular not only among his competitors but with millions of fans around the world.

There are plenty of fast young men in Formula 1 right now. But none of Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc or even George Russell enjoy the kind of universal support and well-wishing which follows Norris.

The Bristol-born driver’s personality — his playfulness in interviews, sense of humour on social media, and exuberant smile — have captivated both long-term Formula 1 fans and also a generation of young people who know him as internet star as much as a racing driver.

Norris regularly streams online on his Twitch channel, playing video games and chatting with followers frequently in his down-time between races. He has routinely sported helmet designs created by schoolchildren in aid of charitable causes, and called out F1 owners Liberty Media for their lack of satisfactory response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

Of course, Norris is not the only sportsperson whose ascent has captured the attention of the nation in 2021. Emma Raducanu’s sensational journey from wildcard to champion at the US open and the England squad’s valiant run to the final of Euro 2020 at Wembley have also provided British people with communal stories to lose themselves in together.

The presence of a generation of young, socially conscious British athletes who are providing moments of pure elation has been uplifting for a nation all too downtrodden and consumed by political bitterness in the past few years. Norris, with his audacious driving style and infectious love of life, is one of the cultural leaders of that generation.

Sport is always at its best when it matters to people. Not just the winners and the losers, but the people in the stands and at home. When it transports you out of the real world and into an adventure that hooks onto you and doesn’t let go. When it makes you feel something.

British people are blessed to be witnessing wonderful sporting moments from so many supremely talented athletes, and fundamentally good people, all at once.

Norris might have been left unhappy in the soaking wet of Russia this time, but he will feel the joy of victory in the near future. What is more powerful, though, is the joy that so many in this country will live while watching him do it.

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