A late downpour resulted in a chaotic last few laps and led to heartbreak for Norris and the hundredth victory in F1 for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton as Sochi surprised by delivering a dramatic, nail-biting spectacle.
Amid the jubilant celebrations of Hamilton’s milestone win, his younger compatriot was left licking his wounds after seeing his victory hopes dashed in gut-wrenching fashion.
Going in search of his first-ever F1 win, Norris had turned in an accomplished drive following his brilliant maiden pole position in qualifying.
Having battled his way past Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari on Lap 13 to get back into the lead after initially losing out in the drag race to Turn 2, the McLaren driver looked to be in complete control and on course to take a historic win until the weather threw a spanner in the works.
A gamble to stay out on slick tyres as light drizzle slowly turned into a deluge proved to be Norris’s undoing as Hamilton, and his other rivals, all pitted to switch onto intermediates.
The joint decision between driver and team to brave it out was a hero-or-zero call based on fine margins that would have been hailed as a moment of genius had it paid off. With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly the wrong call.
A few points for setting the fastest lap and finishing seventh provided no solace for Norris, who could not hide the agonising pain etched across his face as he spoke to the media directly after the race.
“It hurts, so badly,” Norris wrote on his Instagram story later on Sunday evening.
“Pain for me and pain for the team. We lost this together. I feel so bad, will do for a while probably, it’s just how much it means.
“But I, and we, will come back stronger and better.”
Norris had not put a foot wrong before the rain came and looked like he had seven-time world champion Hamilton covered in dry conditions.
After all, this is the same driver who impressively managed to halt Hamilton’s charge earlier this year in Austria and again across the Italian Grand Prix weekend.
Hamilton himself admitted it would have been “tough” to find a way past Norris, whose McLaren is powered by the same Mercedes engine and has been one of the quickest cars in a straight-line all season.
Like Norris, Hamilton wanted to stay out and initially ignored Mercedes’ call to pit before stopping at the end of Lap 49. It proved key as Hamilton evaporated his 25-second deficit in less than two laps and eventually found his way into the lead when Norris skated off the track at Turn 5 as the rain intensified.
After the race, the new world championship leader heaped praise on Norris for doing an “amazing job” and getting within three laps of glory.
“He’s so young, he’s got so many more wins up ahead of him,” Hamilton said.
“He did a fantastic job yesterday in the wet. He’s doing a great job leading that team, and look, McLaren won the last race, they’ve been very hard to beat for us all.”
And Hamilton was not alone in sending support and encouragement to Norris.
Williams driver George Russell said he could empathise with Norris after going through the experience of losing a potential maiden win on his Mercedes debut at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix.
“It’s every driver’s worst nightmare to be leading the race and you start seeing rain on your visor,” he explained.
“You’re damned if you do box, you’re damned if you don’t box. You’re in a lose-lose position.
“I’ve been there, it definitely hurts, but he’ll recover. I guess you try and take the positives from it and he’ll have a victory sooner or later, I’m sure.”
Charles Leclerc has faced similar agony, too. The Monegasque was denied a sensational victory in just his second race for Ferrari at the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix when engine trouble robbed him of a deserved win less than 10 laps from the end.
While Leclerc suspects Norris will come away from Russia feeling “very guilty” for his part in the outcome of the result, he is convinced the Briton will not have to wait much longer for a breakthrough win.
“It is difficult,” Leclerc sympathised. “Obviously I can imagine what he is feeling today, because also it’s probably, he’s part of the decision process in those type of situations, and he might feel very, very guilty.
“But he is an amazing driver. I think he has shown it very often this season. He has had a very strong season, and I am sure he will learn from it.
“It’s just a matter of time before his first win, so yeah, I don’t think he should feel so down after the race he has done.”
It is a testament to Norris’ tremendous talent that he is able to regularly hold his own at the very front despite being one of the youngest drivers on the F1 grid at 21.
Sochi will act as an important lesson for Norris and only make him stronger in the future, according to McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl.
“He has been in the sport long enough that he knows that this is part of the game, part of learning as well,” Seidl said.
“I think it will make him and the team stronger because it is these moments where you learn most.
“Things like today happen, big disappointments, especially when you are so close to something really big, but he has enough experience, and the team as well, to come back out of this even stronger.”
Norris has cemented himself as part of F1’s new generation of stars with an outstanding 2021 campaign that has included 10 top-five finishes from 15 races, four podiums, and one pole.
Considering everything that Norris has demonstrated in his relatively short F1 career to date, it is clear his time on the top step will come. And when it does, success will taste all the more sweeter.