Chinese GP: Sprint pole for Norris in dramatic wet qualifying

Lando Norris (GBR) McLaren MCL38. 19.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sprint Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images
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McLaren's Lando Norris set the quickest time in the final round of qualifying for this weekend's Sprint race in Shanghai, only to have it deleted for exceeding track limits - and then almost immediately reinstated.

It had looked as though Lewis Hamilton had taken an unexpected pole as the rain started to fall heavily over the circuit for SQ3, but he had to settle for P2 on the front row once Norris' time was confirmed and put him top..

Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen are next in line, while Ferrari's Charles Leclerc was only P7 after running wide on the wet track and damaging his front win. The rain also meant George Russell missed the final cut at the end of SQ2.

Trackside fires notwithstanding, the first and only practice session for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix had been a celebration of the unexpected with Aston Martin's Lance Stroll quickest ahead of McLaren's Oscar Piastri. While Red Bull were predictably third and fourth, we then had Haas duo Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen right behind them. Make of all that what you will going into qualifying for Saturday's Sprint race, even before adding the prospect of rain from the heavy overcast skies mixing things up even further.

Yuki Tsunoda (JPN) RB VCARB 01. 19.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sprint Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

SQ1: Perez pips Norris and Verstappen, Tsunoda eliminated

Williams pair Logan Sargeant and Alex Albon were first out on track on mediums as mandated by Sprint qualifying rules, followed by the two Saubers of Valtteri Bottas and local hero Zhou Guanyu. With just 12 minutes of running time for the first round, they were quickly joined by the first of the heavyweights as both Mercedes and Ferrari hustled their cars out. Despite the threat of rain, a chilled Red Bull waited for the others to clear the area before finally setting out themselves.

Albon set the first time of the session with a lap of 1:38.043s, but Hamilton's time was eight tenths quicker as Russell reported there was already rain falling over Shanghai International Circuit. Charles Leclerc then put Ferrari on top by just four thousands of a second from Lando Norris, while his team mate Piastri was third quickest ahead of Hamilton on his initial flying lap.

Fernando Alonso went briefly quickest, but almost at once the Red Bulls were on top with Sergio Perez' lap of 1:36.110s proving three-and-a-half tenths clear of his team mate Max Verstappen. That left Hamilton down in P10 while those at risk of elimination at this early stage were Albon, Russell, Sargeant, Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda, Sargeant complaining of having been impeded by Pierre Gasly on his crucial fast lap. However there was still time for another run, despite light drops of rain which were starting to be felt on track.

With the track starting to lose its edge and getting slower because of the conditions, Perez retained the top spot although Norris was able to jump ahead of Verstappen on his final run. Albon's second and final run was an improvement but still not enough to see him make the cut. At the back, Russell was also under pressure to get through but he finally managed to pop up to P12, knocking Gasly into the drop zone. With Ocon, Tsunoda and Sargeant unable to find enough on their final laps, it meant they would join Gasly and Albon on the sidelines for the remainder of the session.

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Haas VF-24 and Fernando Alonso (ESP) Aston Martin F1 Team AMR24 leave the pits.
19.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sprint Qualifying Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

SQ2: Verstappen quickest, Russell misses the cut as rain arrives

Just as we saw earlier in practice, the grass near the circuit had inexplicably caught fire (this time at the outside of turn 5), just as the chequered flag came out. It meant that the start of SQ2 was delayed while the track workers put out the flames giving the crowd in the grandstands extra time to break out their wet weather gear as the rain started to pick up. The local weather radar was threatening proper downpours just minutes away, meaning cars were frantically jostling for position in the rush to get a flying lap in while the track was still dry enough for slicks.

McLaren won the preliminary battle with Norris and Piastri taking point once the cars were released from pit lane. He set a time of 1:36.047s but that proved two tenths slower than Piastri. Sainz was only able to go third quickest with Alonso fourth. Leclerc then stole the spotlight and went top with a time of 1:35.711s. Red Bull had left it late to come out, but Verstappen won the gamble and went top by a tenth as Perez slipped into third.

That knocked Russell out of the top ten, and the Mercedes driver faced missing the cut along with Magnussen and Hulkenberg, with Daniel Ricciardo and Lance Stroll also under threat. Now the question was whether there was time for them to complete another quick lap before the rain intensified, and it was soon evident that they didn't. Russell had to abort his final last-gasp run and the track fell silent even before the chequered flag. At least the rain was heavy enough to safeguard against further trackside fires, for now at least

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB20 leaves the pits.
19.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sprint Qualifying Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

SQ3: Norris sees pole-winning lap time deleted - and immediately reinstated!

As the teams prepared for the final eight minute top ten pole shoot-out round, the downpour had transformed the situation with all drivers forced to switch to intermediate tyres. McLaren once again staked their claim at the end of pit lane, and the Red Bulls were not holding back this time either and were quickly out on track along with Alonso, Zhou and Leclerc.

As the first man to experience the new, treacherous conditions, Norris was the first to hit trouble as he struggled through the first corner. Leclerc had even bigger problems as the Ferrari skated off at turn 9 and went into the gravel, glancing the barrier and damaging the front wing. He was able to continue and head back to pit lane without triggering a red flag, allowing the other cars to continue with their efforts to set a time but even Verstappen was struggling, skating wide at turn 6 as plumes of water spray were now visible in the air.

Coming out of the situation best was Perez who completed his lap with a time of 2:00.455s. That was a full second ahead of Bottas while Piastri and Norris ended up on the provisional second row for McLaren ahead of Alonso and Sainz. Norris looked set to go top on his next run but ran wide at the final corner, allowing Alonso to claim the top spot from Perez. But there was still plenty of time for others to go quicker still with the inters progressively moving the worst of the water from the racing line.

Lando Norris (GBR) McLaren celebrates pole position in Sprint qualifying parc ferme.
19.04.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 5, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sprint Qualifying Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

By now, Leclerc had come back out of the pits and managed to put in a last minute Hail Mary lap to go go third. Verstappen looked out of the running after being forced to start his final flier with a battery that wasn't fully charged, but he still managed to go third while Hamilton went quickest of all. Norris then popped to the top spot with a time of 1:57.940s, but then almost as quickly he fell back to ninth after his latest time was deleted for exceeding track limits. And then seconds later, Norris was back on top after all as race control had second thoughts and rescinded the track limits ruling.

As a result of the unprecedented rethink, Norris and Hamilton will duly line up on the front row for Saturday's Sprint race. Alonso and Verstappen will be sharing the second row ahead of Sainz, Perez, Leclerc and Piastri with the two Saubers rounding out the top ten. Despite being the slowest driver in this final session, Zhou nonetheless received huge cheers from the increasingly bedraggled fans in the grandstands.

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