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Norris hopes to follow in Button's tracks

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Jenson Button's departure from Formula One last year had one local website reflecting on the sad fact that the English county of Somerset would have no driver on the starting grid for the first time since 1999.

As parochial angles go, it was a good effort. And yet, if Lando Norris keeps on winning, a South-West successor to the 2009 world champion -- who made his F1 debut in 2000 -- may not be too far down the road.

The 17-year-old Glastonbury-based racer has caught the eye in karting and junior series and now has a first Formula One test with Button's McLaren team lined up.

"My ambition is to be in Formula One and be a champion in Formula One," he told Reuters.

"If I’m able to get onto a junior programme or something... 2019 could be a good chance (to reach F1). It’s kind of just around the corner from what I’ve been doing."

Such sentiments are not unusual in the junior formulae, before reality all too often sinks in, and there are others with strong claims such as 18-year-old George Russell who this week joined the young driver programme of world champions Mercedes.

But Norris, who rode bikes before taking up karting at seven and is a big fan of MotoGP great Valentino Rossi, is building impressive credentials.

He was a world go-karting champion at the age of 14 in 2014 and followed in Button's footsteps last year by winning the McLaren BRDC (British Racing Drivers' Club) Autosport award.

The prize includes a Formula One test and simulator role with the former champions, as well as use of the team's training facilities.

"He definitely has a great career in front of him. Lando’s a future F1 driver and I believe a future F1 World Champion," commented BRDC president Derek Warwick at the time.

Norris, who turned 17 in November and has yet to find the time to take a driving test or schedule any lessons after doing 63 races last year, aims to use the opportunity "to learn what an F1 car is like, obviously the speed and the grip.

"And if something does come of that, perfect."

Last year he won the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand as well as the Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup and also finished eighth in British Formula Three despite missing half the season.

In 2015, he won the inaugural MSA Formula title and this season he will be competing in the same Euro F3 championship that propelled Red Bull's Max Verstappen, Force India's Esteban Ocon and Williams' Lance Stroll into Formula One.

Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher's son Mick will be one of his opponents.

"If I can have a great season this year... then that will open me up to more opportunities with possibly joining a junior team or something. And then we’ll have to see where it goes from there," said Norris.

"At this point I’m not on any junior team so my whole focus is just F3. There’s not really been a plan put in place for next year because of what could happen."

Like Canadian Stroll, the 18-year-old billionaire's son who will make his F1 debut in Australia in March, Norris has money behind him but expects to progress on merit.

"I’m fortunate enough that my Dad’s able to pay for everything that I’ve done so far. I wouldn’t want to go into Formula One having to pay for everything," he said.

"I prefer earning my way into it by showing that I have the ability to be good, and fast and from that a team picks me up."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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