It’s a qualifying top three, but not as we know it. Tricky conditions in Sochi leveled the playing field to allow the next generation of F1 talents to take the top three positions on the grid for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
The next generation
This is the Formula One season that just keeps on giving … as long as you’re a fan of surprise results. Two weeks on from McLaren’s shock one-two victory at the Italian Grand Prix, Lando Norris kept the British team on top by securing pole position for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
Once again, circumstances and misfortune for the front runners played a part in the result, but that should take nothing away from Norris’ lap, which beat his former teammate and current Ferrari rival Carlos Sainz to the top spot.
“It’s just an awesome feeling altogether — I don’t know what to say,” Norris said. “It feels like you have just qualified well, but it’s a pole position, which doesn’t come around much.
“It’s my first in X amount of races and it could be my only pole for a while. It feels amazing, especially in these conditions.
“It’s tricky and you have to put a lot of risk on the line and just try to see if it pays off and it did. An amazing feeling, my first pole.”
It’s not Norris’ first impressive performance this year. During the rain-soaked qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix he looked like a contender for the front row of the grid until a high-speed accident at Eau Rouge in the final session of qualifying ruled him out. Then, at Monza, he would have been the McLaren driver on the top step of the podium had he not lost a crucial position to teammate Daniel Ricciardo on the opening lap of the sprint qualifying race, leaving him as the rear gunner in the grand prix itself.
It may seem unlikely given the pace of the Mercedes in normal conditions and Lewis Hamilton starting just three places behind him, but Norris is keen to continue to ride his current wave all the way to a race victory on Sunday.
“Of course, I have the opportunity to try and achieve something that I did not achieve in Italy,” Norris said of his chances in Sunday’s race. “I’m definitely going to go for it, but of course in every situation you do, especially when I have the situation that I’m going to have tomorrow.
“With the Ferrari and the Williams behind me that is a bit of a buffer [to Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes], so we have a good chance. I don’t think my mentality has changed because of Monza and I don’t think that I have to make up for it.
“It is a second chance to try to do even better.”
Both Sainz and George Russell also deserve recognition for their qualifying performances in Russia. Sainz missed out on pole by 0.517s but arguably has a less competitive car than Norris at this particular circuit, which suits the McLaren far better than the Ferrari.
Russell outperforming his car is no longer a surprise in F1, but his third place in Sochi is every bit as remarkable as the other feats he has performed this year. He was the first driver to switch to slick tyres on Saturday — a decision made easier for Williams by the fact he had no new intermediate tyres left and had already outperformed expectations in qualifying by making the top ten. But even with more temperature in his tyres than the drivers who followed suit later in Q3, he still needed to hook up a lap and avoid making a mistake to get the job done.
While retaining a podium position on Sunday seems unlikely for Russell, Sochi should provide an opportunity for him to score a decent haul of points, with Williams showing respectable pace on heavy fuel during Friday practice, rather than Saturday’s mistakes.
Is Hamilton cracking under the pressure?
When Red Bull announced that Max Verstappen would take a fresh engine this weekend and start from the back of the grid as a result, it should have provided an open goal for Hamilton to score maximum points on Sunday. But as early as the first hurdle in qualifying, Hamilton seemed to stumble and he will line up fourth on the grid for a race he really needs to win.
As the rest of the field decided slick tyres would provide the best lap time in changing conditions in Q3, Hamilton and Mercedes stayed on track to set a banker lap on the intermediate tyres. It was the conservative approach and arguably the right one as it secured him fourth place rather than tenth at the end of the session, but it put big pressure on Hamilton when it finally came to the switch to soft tyres.
As he rushed back to the pits, Hamilton took more speed into the tight pit entry than he had so far in the session and clipped the wall on entry. The incident snapped his front wing, costing more time as the team not only had to change the broken wing but also move Hamilton out of the way to make space for teammate Valtteri Bottas, who also needed to make the switch to slicks in the same pit box.
By the time Hamilton got back on track, his slick tyres had been out of their blankets for 64 seconds, leaking performance as they cooled down in the open air. Once on track, he lost more performance as he had to make way for other cars, running off the racing line and cooling the tyres further. It was no surprise, therefore, that he was unable to beat his previous time on intermediate tyres and eventually spun in the final sector.
It was a unfortunate series of events, but Hamilton claims it had nothing to do with the pressure of the title fight.
“It’s really nothing to do with pressure, honestly,” Hamilton said. “It really wasn’t a pressure scenario.
“It’s literally just a case of mistakes do happen. I came into the pits, I knew that I didn’t have a huge amount of time and I was attacking. I was just trying to get through the pit lane as fast as possible because I knew that I would need as much time as possible.
“In the previous times coming in the pit lane, you could take it really quite slowly, I thought the track was drying and the grip was quite good, and came in and just took it a little bit quicker than normal and just lost the back end and slid into the wall.
“So, yes, of course, embarrassing, disappointed in myself that I’d had it, but s— happens. We all make mistakes, and of course it’s not what you would expect a world champion to do.
“But the problem when you have the success that I have, anything but perfection feels like a long way off. But I’m only human. My dad called me afterwards, and we just talked about it, and you just move on.
“Tomorrow, I get my racing head back on and back focused, and hopefully bring you a good race.”
From fourth on the grid and with a Mercedes that was clearly the fastest car in race conditions during Friday practice, Hamilton should be able to recover the win on Sunday. That could prove to be the true test of how he is dealing with the pressure from Verstappen.
Damage limitation for Verstappen
Championship leader Max Verstappen would have been very happy with how qualifying unfolded at Sochi. Yesterday it was confirmed Red Bull would change his engine — a change expected since his collision with Lewis Hamilton at July’s Briitsh Grand Prix — and take on the back-of-the-grid penalty that comes with it.
Verstappen’s job on Sunday will be to keep his nose clean in the opening corners and then patiently make his way through the order. With the talent and car he has at his disposal he can still target a strong finish on Sunday.
Fernando Alonso, who qualified sixth, said he would be surprised not to see Verstappen at some point in the race and pointed Valtteri Bottas’ comeback drive at the Italian Grand Prix as an example of the front two teams’ outright pace.
“P6, let’s see if we can hold this position tomorrow because we know Verstappen will come [through] quite fast,” Alonso said.
“We saw Bottas starting last in Monza, he finished on the podium. Red Bull and Mercedes are in a different race.”
Gasly fumes at AlphaTauri
Pierre Gasly, who has made a habit of qualifying strongly this year, was absolutely furious after being eliminated in Q2. The French driver spent most of his in-lap angrily thumping the sides of his cockpit and sent an explitive-laden radio message back to his AlphaTauri team.
He was upset at being left out on old tyres in the middle session. Given what followed in Q3, Gasly’s mood was understandable.
“I asked to box a couple of times and in the end we stayed out on used tyres,” he said. “We clearly had the pace to be right there in Q3 until the end and today we did a bad job and I don’t really understand why we didn’t box.”
Gasly lost his front wing at the end of second practice on Friday but otherwise his pace has looked very strong. With AlphaTauri scoring zero points at Monza and its rivals qualifying strongly on Saturday afternoon, Gasly will need to deliver some of the magic we’ve come to expect over the last 18 months.