By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – McLaren Formula One rookie Lando Norris is not afraid to talk about fear, even if much of his racing is notable for the complete absence of it.
Racing drivers talk often about the thrills, the perpetual craving for more speed, and accepting the dangers that go with the territory.
The 19-year-old Briton is no exception but, ahead of Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, the avid gamer recognises the divide between the fearless world of virtual racing and the reality of slotting a Formula One car at speed through twisting, metal-fenced streets.
“Some drivers say there’s no fear,” Norris told Reuters. “For me there is fear. I fear death. I fear injury. I fear big crashes.
“I do fear all that stuff. Maybe I’m more human than some of the other drivers. But it’s just a fear. It’s not like I don’t want to go out and drive.
“I can manage it well but if you go to Monaco or something, fear can kick in a much bigger way,” continued the teenager. “There’s no room for error. If you crash, generally it’s quite a big crash.
“Those two things you never get in the simulator; G-force and fear. You don’t care if you crash or hit the barrier, there’s no consequence for it.”
The speed and skill have been evident in the first five races, with Norris qualifying in the top 10 three times and reaping two scoring finishes including sixth in Bahrain, and much of it has been honed in the virtual word.
He has a top-of-the-range 35,000 pound ($45,000) simulator in his living room, sharing floor space with a table and sofa.
He said that on ‘hardcore’ days, without training or other commitments, he can spend most of his waking hours racing online and refining his technique — from 11 am until well after midnight.
The Briton also has a flash new McLaren sportscar parked in the garage beneath his apartment near the Woking factory, but has so far used it for little more than venturing out to his local supermarket.
He admits he sometimes takes his washing home to mum and, like many a teenager, is happy to put a frozen ready meal — prepared by a nutritionist — into the microwave.
Formula One’s party animals of old would be appalled but virtual racing fills much of Norris’s free time as he takes on gamers and real race drivers including Red Bull’s 21-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen.
The pair competed together for Team Redline in last February’s virtual Bathurst 12 hours race on the iRacing esports network.
Norris saw time on the simulator as an integral part of being a modern Formula One driver, with McLaren heavily involved in esports and planning a second edition of their Shadow Project.
Last year’s competition attracted 500,000 entrants with Brazilian winner Igor Fraga securing a seat on McLaren’s esports roster.
“It’s just staying sharp in terms of driving. A lot of the time it is for fun and it’s for fun because I love doing it. And I race against Max,” said Norris.
“At the same time while we do it, we try and improve the setup as much as possible… it’s not just a game at the end of the day.
“Things I do on track pretty much are replicated exactly the same on the sim, whether I’m braking early or braking late or whatever. When I drive the sim I do exactly the same things and I’m able to work on that and improve it.”
Norris said the simulator had helped him prepare for unfamiliar tracks and the different techniques required.
“When I raced Max I could learn how he would drive on the actual track. I already learned how he would defend, because he’s very good at that, he can be very aggressive at times,” said the Briton.
“Maybe you push a bit more on the sim because you can get away with it, but there were a lot of things I could take away from that which I then learnt about and knew about Max coming into this season.
“You pretty much learn about everything; how people drive, the obvious things or places you can overtake or not, force people into mistakes, where it’s hard to follow or not.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)