If you were looking for a face to represent Generation Z in Formula One, Lando Norris’ might just be it. As one of F1’s most popular drivers, and possibly it’s most active online, he fits the bill perfectly.
What sets Norris apart from many of his peers is his social media presence. He has 4.4 million followers on Instagram, 1.5 million on Twitter and 1.1 million on Twitch. His Instagram and Twitter numbers are middling compared to some F1 drivers but it’s the Twitch following that makes him stand out.
In the early months of the pandemic, Norris set streaming records as the world turned to online gaming in lieu of live sports. It’s not difficult to understand why Norris is loved by so many F1 fans. Beyond the gaming and streaming, he’s established himself as someone worth supporting on track and off it.
On track, he’s one of the sport’s most exciting young talents, demonstrated this year by the fact he’s largely out-performed Daniel Ricciardo, one of the grid’s best rated drivers. Off track, he’s become an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness. Norris just seems different to most F1 drivers of a similar age.
The impact his personality has had is obvious. A recent poll of 167,000 F1 fans found Norris to be the second most popular in the sport, behind current championship leader Max Verstappen and ahead of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
Considering he’s got four fewer seasons to his name than Verstappen, 12 fewer than Hamilton and is yet to claim his first F1 victory, it’s not outrageous to suggest he might top similar polls in a few years’ time.
It all sounds great, but fame often comes at a price. You only have to talk to Norris for a few moments to see how sincerely he appreciates and loves his fanbase. But it’s also clear that being a popular young F1 driver today comes with a twist.
Delve below the surface of the community known collectively as “F1 Twitter” and you’ll find examples of a murky online underworld. It’s a part of the internet where a vocal and usually anonymous minority can thrive, and Norris has felt the brunt of it since making his debut in 2019.
Sadly, it’s only got worse as his fame has rocketed in the time since. For example, people he spends time with away from F1 have sometimes been harassed and abused online just for being pictured with him — in today’s world, it’s worryingly easy to track someone down with a few clicks of a button.
“I think the one bad thing is just personal life with friends, people who through no fault of their own get put into the spotlight sometimes because of being seen with me or me following them on social media or something,” Norris said in a recent interview with ESPN.
“I think that’s been the worst side of it: someone who is just quiet on their own and they’re seen with me at dinner or on a post on Instagram. There’s still a lot of nasty fans, a lot of fans which are just not nice and just use a lot of people and things like that.
“I’d say that’s been the worst thing about the popularity, is those kind of people. The people who don’t respect your personal life at all and the people you hang with and so on. That’s definitely the worst bit of it.”
When it’s put to him there are a lot of self-styled detectives on social media these days, able to find information about people without ever meeting them, Norris adds: “There are. It’s very, very weird.
“Honestly, it’s very creepy what some people do. The time they spend trying to investigate things or people or whatever.
“I just laugh and find it very funny, but it’s very weird. It’s just odd.”
While Norris has learnt to deal with things that are thrown his way and accepted them as coming with the territory of being an F1 superstar, he draws a line at abuse directed at his friends.
“It’s disrespectful, I feel, to someone who through no fault of their own, I guess because they’re my friend or something, gets abuse on social media because someone doesn’t like the top they wear and it’s because they’re friends with me… crap like that.
“That’s the only thing I really hate about being in the position I’m in now.”
Beyond social media, Norris doesn’t mind the level of attention he has to deal with. As we talk about fame and his life away from the circuit, he jokes that it’s made him realise he has an unhelpful personality trait for those situations: an inability to say no to curious fans who want a chat or a selfie in public.
“Sometimes if I’m just at dinner with friends… honestly I don’t mind when people come and do it. Of course, it’s maybe not the nicest thing when you’re in the middle of dinner and people come and say ‘can I get a quick picture please?’
“But I feel like I can’t say no! I feel like they’d hate me and they wouldn’t be my fan anymore. I hate saying no, that’s a problem sometimes, maybe I need to start saying no a bit more often. But I struggle to.”
There’s been some slightly more unusual and uncomfortable situations. While talking about how some celebrities complain about being spotted and talked to at urinals, Norris laughs.
“I have had that one,” he says. “It’s really awkward.
“When they look, it’s like, OK that’s weird. Then they look again, because you get it a lot you’re standing there and they take a second look, you look back, there’s that massive awkwardness.
“Then they’re standing there talking to you, you’re like, ‘oh, f—.”
When asked if there’s anything he could do to get recognised less in public, he says: “There’s not a lot of things you can do, apart from not going out! There’s some things you can do to be a little bit more hidden from the limelight.
“But it’s part of it, not just with Formula One drivers, but with people who get some fame and get a bit more popular in whatever sport they’re doing.”
Another of Norris’ traits, and one he’s attributed to his mental health awareness, is his sense of perspective. This is clear to see when he talks more generally about his rising fame and his growing status in the sport.
“I’m not Lewis Hamilton still. I’m not a seven-time world champion and known for many other things like he is. He’s popular outside of Formula One as well. I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere near that level.
“But, of course, with the charts that came out the other day, being the second most popular… there’s a lot of things fans love me for which is different from other drivers.
“It’s OK at the moment. Sometimes it’s a bit too much, but it’s still a nice thing to have.”