SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) – A shocked Lando Norris collected a call from the Crown Prince of Bahrain after qualifying fourth for the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix on Saturday to secure McLaren’s highest grid position since 2016.
The 20-year-old, Formula One’s youngest current driver, was quicker than both Ferraris as well as Red Bull’s Alex Albon and the Racing Point cars many had expected to be leading the midfield charge.
Interviewed on live Sky television in the paddock afterwards, the startled Briton was handed a mobile phone by McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown who informed him of the caller’s identity.
“Zak said he would have done even better,” Norris cheekily informed the royal.
McLaren are majority owned by Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat and recently secured a 150 million pound ($187.25 million) financing facility with the National Bank of Bahrain.
Norris told reporters he had expected Racing Point to be quite a bit ahead.
“The whole thing was a bit of a shock, which makes it even better in some ways because we weren’t aiming for a top five or a top six,” he said.
“But I’m just very happy for all of us, the whole team, to start the season off like this, for it to be also my best qualifying position.”
That said, he felt he could have done even better.
“There was a chance if I really nailed it to possibly bring the fight to Max (Verstappen), but I’m sure he had more in the tank if he nailed his lap too,” he said of the Red Bull driver who qualified third.
McLaren have not won a race since 2012 but finished fourth overall last year as the former champions continued their climb back from the depths of a disastrous partnership with Honda, who have since tasted victory with Red Bull.
Now-retired 2009 champion Jenson Button qualified fifth for McLaren at the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix but started third after demotions for others.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar)