Lando Norris recently pulled off a stunning comeback at the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix to earn the second podium finish of his Formula 1 career
Lando Norris
Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Lando Norris doesn't mince words when describing his performance during the qualifying session for the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix earlier this month: "I effed up."

Norris, a Formula 1 star with McLaren, placed ahead of Red Bull's Max Verstappen in qualifying by 0.044 seconds, earning him the third position on the circuit's starting line, even if it was by the slimmest of margins. He came only behind Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Verstappen's teammate, Sergio Perez.

Unfortunately, after his last qualifying lap, race officials handed Norris a track limits penalty for having crossed the white line with his whole car during a turn. It sent him from the third position to the seventh, and the setback was a huge blow to the 21-year-old driver.

Norris apologized to the team for the mishap later that day by posting a picture of himself to Instagram with his eyes closed and a caption saying, in part, "you deserved better today."

In response, Hamilton left Norris a supportive comment, telling his rival, "nobody can knock you for giving it your all ... Move on, let's race."

So Norris did just that.

Lando Norris
Credit: Charles Coates/Getty Images

The next day, April 18, Norris came in third at the Grand Prix, putting on a masterful comeback performance during a dramatic race hampered by rain.

It was the second time in Norris' F1 career that he earned a spot on the podium, nearly a year after he came in third at the Austrian Grand Prix in July 2020.

"I'll remember it forever as one of the coolest experiences I've ever had because it's something I dreamt of since I was a little kid," Norris, who began karting when he was 7 years old, tells PEOPLE of that first F1 podium.

"Of course, you want to win races and win a championship, but you also want a podium. It's just a lot of relief knowing that it's possible that you've managed to achieve such a thing that not many people in the world, not many people even in Formula One, get to achieve," he says. "I think the cool thing for me, as much as it was just an awesome feeling, I feel like I really achieved something."

In F1, speed is just one part of the game. Races are an exhilarating combination of strategy and calculated risks, all made while a driver operates a turbocharged vehicle that can exceed 200 miles per hour.

"We're pulling around seven, seven-and-a-half G, which is, in other words, what a fighter pilot might pull when they're flying a jet," Norris, born in Bristol, England, says of what it feels to be behind the wheel of one of the cars. "It's hard to describe until you're witnessing it yourself."

Having so much mechanical power is as exciting as it is dangerous, which means winning an F1 race isn't simply about putting "pedal to the metal," especially with so much on the line.

One of the most talked-about moments of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was a high-speed crash involving Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas and George Russell of Williams. As Russell tried to pass Bottas, he lost traction and slammed into the Mercedes, sending both cars into the barrier.

Fortunately, the drivers walked away uninjured from the 190 mph collision, but incidents such as this — and Romain Grosjean's fiery crash last year — serve as reminders of the perils at hand.

"When I need to, and when it's applicable, I'm able to take risks and I can be aggressive," Norris says of his driving style. "But I can also be the opposite. I can also be the guy that is a bit more patient and sometimes allows things to come to him and make sure I see the chequered flag at the end of the race."

"That's always the most important thing," he adds.

Regardless of the risks, there are many reasons drivers face them. For Norris, who made his F1 debut in 2019, he says it's the thrill of competition — along with his love of working with McLaren's engineers — that he most enjoys.

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"That's the thing that really gets people going," he explains. "You're going 300 kilometers an hour, 350 kilometers an hour. You're going all the way around the world to different tracks. You're experiencing a lot of different things ... that's all of the bonus to it."

"But what we all love is the competition and trying to be the best, and that's why it means so much when you win," Norris adds. "It's not because you've just driven 320 kilometers an hour in a race, it's because you've beaten everyone else, that's what makes it so sweet."

Heading into the Portuguese Grand Prix on May 2, McLaren is in third place in the Constructor Championship with 41 points, just behind Red Bull (53) and Mercedes (60). McLaren has won eight Constructor Championships throughout its history but has entered a drought since its last win in 1998.

With 27 points, Norris is only behind Hamilton (44) and Verstappen (43) in the Driver Championship. That places him ahead of his McLaren teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, who has 14 points.

But the 2021 season is still young.

The 23rd and final race of the year will take place in Abu Dhabi in December, and Norris — who has a social media following of millions on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch, where he streams video games — says he's looking forward to the clashes he'll have with the other top teams until then.

"It's going to be a good battle," he says.

"It's going to be extremely close, closer than it was last year at the end of it," Norris adds. "We would like to be ahead more often than not. I think there's going to be a lot of racing, some close qualifyings. It's going to be mixed. But we'll do our best to try to stay ahead and close the gap with the two leading teams."

As he proved at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, that gap may be closer than it's been in a long time.