If you’re not into motorsport — and frankly, who is these days — then you may not have heard of Lando Norris. If you know anyone who’s into motorsport, even if you’re not, you probably have, though. At length and with a lot of wide-eyed excitement you probably don’t connect with the deathly boredom of cars going in circles.
“Watching an F1 driver play computer games” doesn’t sound like the solution to, well, anything in the current situation. The world’s a big, grim place and everything is a nightmare. We’re trapped in our houses, we can’t see anyone and going to the supermarket is like that live-action roleplaying event for Children of Men that literally no one asked for.
Ok, he isn’t fixing coronavirus. Well, he’s not researching a vaccine at least — but isolated alone in his house, Lando is at least on message in terms of what people in the UK need to do right now. And to be honest I’m not sure F1 drivers should try and research a vaccine, it’s not really their skill set.
Social isolation is hard. Me, I’m a big old adult whose job (as a journalist) can basically be summarised as “being alone and in danger” so you’d think I’d be adapting to it well but it turns out this is yet another thing I can have a mental breakdown and decide to chop a load of my hair off over.
It’s especially hard when you’re watching the government clown off and fail at everything from economics to following their own advice and if your anxiety isn’t off the scale then you’re probably dissociating. There’s not a lot to unite around or take as instruction right now, apart from staying indoors and trying to work out how pasta portions work.
(or what you can improvise for pasta, depending on your Tesco success)
And even if you live with other people, we’re all alone and somehow have no privacy and climbing the walls less than a week into lockdown.
You might be thinking “I am not sure where Formula One drivers come into this” still and that’s fair, probably until last week most of us were still pretty vague on it. But the answer is: twenty year old McLaren driver Lando Norris has been streaming on Twitch (which is like Sky On Demand for people whose brains have been fully converted to Online) every day, for over a week now.
For hours and hours. Sometimes playing games or racing online, sometimes just talking and eating chicken, sometimes cooking and revealing he might have been round the world but has no idea what couscous is. Which is relatable, as neither do any UK supermarket shelves currently.
Lando is not a typical F1 driver by the absurdly stuck-in-the-past values of the sport. He’s small, cute, extremely online and has a genuinely sweet personality that he doesn’t bother to hide. He’s fiercely competitive and fearsomely talented but he looks like he’d get dumped in a bin by the sort of scowling asshats who like to think they control racing and whose anger at losing that grip is equalled by the gleeful way we’ve all glomped onto a nice boy who can’t pronounce ‘statistics.’
The sport’s most conservative end — which was all of it, until recently — would have an archetypical F1 driver as some personality-divorce mid-90s Rothmans thug. It’s all gone downhill since the drivers started talking about going to the gym and being vegan instead of whatever nebulous titanic thing they were meant to say before being flung out of a car in a fireball, to way too many people who consider themselves the key audience.
Well, they’re not. It’s 2020 and a bunch of us (even people working in motorsport) have been determinedly loving it through gritted teeth for years, tacitly dismissed by ITV’s intro section looking like a Spearmint Rhino advert as late as 2008. It’s embarrassing, like having to admit to your friends your boyfriend’s a Tory.
Lately, the risk of not having anyone watch it at all has caused some wake up ripples. And F1’s appetite for young drivers’ has a cougar-like voraciousness that meant it was only ever going to be a matter of time before one of them was aware of memes.
Lando is aware of memes. He is, in fact, several memes. He has a giggly laugh it’s easy to get out of him and is comfortable sharing his time and life online, from vlogging to streaming. When then-F1 champion Nico Rosberg left to become a YouTuber (sorry, I was partially responsible) it was regarded as a sort of crass weirdness that demeaned the sport — but Lando came in as a YouTuber, even before most people realised he was also a constantly-online gamer.
He comes across as sweet and wholesome and funny, which is understandably appealing in these trying times. He’s not worried about taking the piss out of himself or looking slightly ridiculous and although some of the relentless negativity definitely gets to him, he’s remarkably resilient in terms of taking ego knocks that would ruffle other athletes. Especially given he’s, you know, twenty and locked in alone to avoid the plague.
And he’s entertaining between a few thousand and 100,000 people a night for, basically, the hell of it or because he wants to or whatever. I’m an emotional wreck at all times but motorsport is generally a bit stiff-upper-lip or at best sarcastic, so it’s been kind of heartwarming seeing the number of tweets from people saying Lando’s comforting babble has turned into a nightly, calming routine for them while they’re struggling to deal.
People who don’t know he drives an F1 car are tuning in, people who don’t like him are and finding themselves charmed because it turns out actually we do all kind of need a friend to chill with. Yes, it’s not manning the paramedic stations but his streams are genuinely providing care for people who aren’t coping — because who the hell is coping with this, a thing that can’t be coped with?
I don’t wanna say it’s heroic, although watching him carry on until he’s yawning every night and take torrents of abuse in the chat with good grace and a smile is definitely impressive. He does hurl cars around a track at 300mph for his day job so the dude is pretty tough but one small (and completely understandable) snap last night, despairing for less than ten seconds at getting “slated constantly” has been the only sign it or anything else is wearing on him, the streams otherwise a cosy haven of bubbly good nature.
He’s obviously having fun and being kept company to some extent, as much as he’s keeping other people but it’s a strangely unique service. Sports fans, cut off from what we love and take comfort from every day in just when we need it most, have something to fill the gap. I don’t even work in the F1 paddock anymore but watching someone who gets the whole industry somehow winds down the screaming panic that I’m unemployed and everything might collapse.
If every series goes bankrupt in this break then it’s an apocalyptically comforting thought hey, there’ll still be Lando’s stream to cling to.