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F1 results: Lando Norris conquers the rain in sprint qualifying for Chinese GP

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As the final portion of qualifying for this weekend’s Sprint Race at the Chinese Grand Prix began, the ten remaining drivers all took to the track on the green-lined intermediate tires, as the rain was coming down in Shanghai. The wet conditions proved tricky immediately, as Charles Leclerc spun off the track and into the barrier early in SQ3. The driver who captured pole in those elements would be a true master of the wet.

“This is pure driving talent on show,” came the description from Alex Jacques in the F1TV commentary booth.

When the checkered flag flew it was a pair of drivers from England, perhaps well suited to driving in the wet conditions, on the front row. Lando Norris — more on that time in a second — finished ahead of former champion Lewis Hamilton.

For a moment, it looked as if it would be Hamilton on pole, with fellow veteran Fernando Alonso alongside him. While Norris’ time was good enough for P1, his lap time was deleted near the end of SQ3 for exceeding track limits, as the McLaren driver slid wide at the final turn and appeared to go off the track.

But then came relief from the racing gods, or more accurately, race officials. Norris’ time was reinstated as no track limits violation was found, and he was back on pole.

“It was tricky! You are always nervous going into a session like this and even before qualifying when you know it is going to rain,” Norris said afterwards. “The last lap was all or nothing.”

Teammate Oscar Piastri also advanced into SQ3, qualifying in P8 for the Sprint Race.

That makes Friday a huge result for McLaren. After all, heading into this weekend the team did their best to downplay expectations, pointing at the many low-speed corners offered by the Shanghai International Circuit as a reason they could struggle. Despite the big step forward the team took starting midway through 2023, lower-speed corners have posed a problem for them.

But Friday’s practice session, as well as the qualifying results, illustrate that the MCL38 might have a little more pace than they expected. “I’m pleased for Lando and I think overall, we’re more promising here than we were expecting to be, but the pace in general is tough to judge. We’ll have a look overnight and see what we can do ahead of the Sprint and Grand Prix Qualifying tomorrow,” said Piastri in the team’s post-session report.

There is more work to be done, but this looks like a very strong start for McLaren, and perhaps one they did not expect.

Here are the full qualifying results for tomorrow’s Sprint Race, as well as more winners and losers:

Winners: Sauber

When the rains came in SQ2, the crowd at Shanghai International Circuit roared to life.

For their hometown hero.

Because when those rains arrived, with a few minutes left in SQ2, they froze the field. Conditions would worsen and those drivers in the elimination zone would not find the times they needed to advance to SQ3, and those drivers sitting in the top ten were safe to advance.

Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, the aforementioned hometown here, were among those in the top ten.

To say it has been a difficult — and strange — start to the season for Sauber would be an understatement. At times the C44 has shown true race pace, and at various points in this early season both Bottas and Zhou have been in the mix for points. But problems on their pit stops have been their undoing, and the team arrived in Shanghai for the first Chinese Grand Prix since 2019 still looking to score their first points of the season.

Thanks to Friday’s effort, they have a good chance at doing just that in the Sprint Race.

“Sauber have got some pace here,” came the description from Jolyon Palmer on F1TV at the end of SQ2.

Then in the third and final portion of qualifying, it looked for a moment like Bottas might shock the field. The veteran driver — who qualified on pole the last time the grid was in China — was up in P2 for a moment in SQ3. Eventually, however, some better times came in and Bottas settled for P9, right ahead of his teammate.

Bottas hailed Zhou, the Chinese fans, and the team following the session.

“Today has been a great day for the team: both cars in the top ten is how we want to start a race weekend. We experienced mixed conditions — something that’s never easy, but it’s reassuring to know that we would have been up there regardless of the weather. I’m truly happy for Zhou and the Chinese fans — getting into SQ3 at your home race is special. While it’s still quite challenging to assess everyone’s race pace after FP1, especially with evolving track conditions, we’ll give it our all tomorrow,” said Bottas in the team’s post-session report. “The team has done a great job and with the extra support from the Chinese fans, we aim to be fighting for points in the sprint and deliver a qualifying performance to this level tomorrow.”

The hometown hero declared that Sauber has a chance going into Saturday, which is all you can ask for.

“It feels great to be in SQ3. The laps kept coming together, in SQ1 through SQ2: there was a lot of potential in the car but in the end, in the rain in SQ3, we only had one lap to get the best possible outcome. I was just trying to get a lap onboard, even though everyone was struggling so much with the grip,” said Zhou. “I’m happy with the day, with two cars in SQ3, and the fans have been sensational: I can’t wait for the rest of the weekend. Points tomorrow will only be for the top eight, but we’re taking this step by step: we put two cars in the top ten today, and we will give everything tomorrow. Everything can still happen; it’ll be a sprint from the lights to the finish. The guys we are fighting for the points will be strong, but we stand with a chance and we’re ready to go for it.”

Losers: Williams

In the past few qualifying sessions, Williams has taken a rather interesting approach. Often the sessions begin with drivers Alexander Albon and Logan Sargeant taking to the track first, seeking to lay down a banker lap in clean air.

That approach seemed to backfire on Friday.

The rains that swept through the area after FP1 and ahead of qualifying washed away some of the rubber laid down on the track during the first practice session, making those early laps a bit of a struggle for the team. When SQ1 was over, both Albon and Sargeant were out.

“Today was tough and we struggled in both sessions to generate good grip on the Medium [tire]. The light rain between the sessions didn’t help and made the conditions at the start of the Qualifying session quite tricky,” said Dave Robson, the team’s Head of Vehicle Performance. “We will use the Sprint race session tomorrow to help prepare for the Grand Prix and use the opportunity before tomorrow’s Qualifying session to make some setup changes.”

“Tough session today. We were the first cars out, so the track was still very green, which damaged the [tires]. We tried to go for a second lap at the end of SQ1 but the [tires] were gone and we didn’t have the grip,” described Albon. “I don’t know if SQ2 was a possibility today, but I think there was potential to be in a better position than we are. We’ll treat the Sprint race as a session to learn more about the car ahead of Qualifying.”

Keeping with the team of learning more about the FW46 at this circuit, Sargeant is hoping the team can unlock a few answers about the car during the Sprint Race to use in qualifying for the Grand Prix.

“Mixed feelings today, as like Japan, I feel like I did a decent job but unfortunately that’s placed me at the back of the grid. I felt like there’s a little bit more in the car but I’m sure everyone else can say the same,” added Sargeant. “The track was extremely slippery today with low grip which made it difficult. We have our homework to do overnight. The good thing is Parc Fermé opens again after the Sprint race to allow us to change some things. We’ll use the Sprint to pick up the learnings for the race on Sunday and, of course, figure out what we can do better in Qualifying tomorrow.”

F1 Grand Prix Of The Netherlands

Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Winners: Wily veterans

Let’s give it up for the two oldest drivers on the grid.

Or, framed a different way, the two most experienced drivers on the grid.

Friday’s Sprint Qualifying was, as Alex Jacques described on F1TV, a test of driving talent. But while it was Lando Norris who bested the field, he has two of the sport’s living legends right behind him on the grid.

Lewis Hamilton, in perhaps the best result of the year for Mercedes, put his W15 on the front row, and the second-oldest driver on the grid will start alongside Norris on Saturday in the Sprint Race. And behind Norris? The oldest driver on the grid, Fernando Alonso.

“The conditions were very tricky out there. As you could see, there was not a lot of grip out there for anyone. As soon as I saw the rain coming though, I was getting very excited. Our pace in the dry didn’t look quite quick enough to challenge at the very front, so the wet weather gave us more of an opportunity,” described Hamilton in the post-session report from Mercedes. “That’s when it all came alive. We will have to wait and see what the conditions are tomorrow. We have a lot of fast cars starting behind us, but we will see what we can do to keep them behind us.”

That experience paid off for Mercedes, according to Andrew Shovlin, the team’s Trackside Engineering Director.

“Lewis made it through and, after a good call by him and the team to change onto a new set of Intermediates with higher pressure, did a great job to qualify P2,” described Shovlin, praising the driver’s input. “Our pace in the dry wasn’t spectacular but with Lewis, we will be looking to keep those faster cars behind us in tomorrow’s Sprint.”

As for Alonso, the veteran driver felt the AMR24 come alive in the difficult conditions.

“It was quite a stressful Sprint Qualifying. In SQ1 we were looking at the radar and checking if the rain was coming. We progressed and safely made it into SQ3 in eighth position before it rained more heavily,” outlined Alonso. “As the conditions changed, we were quite competitive. The tyres seemed to improve with each lap, but the circuit was just getting worse with the rainfall increasing. It was difficult to judge the level of grip and how much risk to take. We have the two races now, so let’s see if we can score some points in the Sprint and qualify well for Sunday.”

So let’s give it up for experience.

Losers: Alpine

In their continued quest to improve the A524 Alpine brought a major upgrade to the Chinese Grand Prix, a new floor for Esteban Ocon.

He finished P17 in SQ1, getting knocked out at the first elimination stage and, perhaps more worrisome for Alpine, behind teammate Pierre Gasly in P16.

It was yet another of those days for Alpine, who are still searching for answers to the tricky A524. However, Ocon maintained a positive outlook following Friday’s two sessions and believes more can be extracted this weekend.

“We did not maximise the potential of the car today. I think we can extract more performance from the car and, unfortunately with only one practice session, we did not put everything together in time for Sprint Qualifying,” said Ocon. “We will try our best to make progress in the Sprint Race tomorrow morning and make changes to the car when Parc Fermé opens ahead of Qualifying for the Grand Prix. We will do some analysis overnight and evaluate what set-up changes we can make between sessions to improve tomorrow.”

For Gasly, who endured some power issues during FP1, there were some encouraging signs both for this weekend, and beyond when his A524 gets the new floor.

“A challenging Friday morning session for us, due to a high voltage problem but the team worked hard and managed to swap the Power Unit and the battery before Sprint Qualifying as a precautionary measure,” said Gasly. “The session turned out slightly better than expected, although, we are far from where we want to be currently. From what we have seen so far, the upgrades to Esteban’s car look to be a step in the right direction, so I am looking forward to Miami where we both will be able to run the updated car. In the meantime, we will continue working hard to get the maximum out of the car in the Sprint Race and Qualifying tomorrow.”

Still, it looks like lots of work remains for Alpine to get the A524 in the right window to challenge for points.

Loser: Yuki Tsunoda

At the Japanese Grand Prix Yuki Tsunoda was a major storyline, as the hometown hero finished in the points and continued his strong start to the season, as well as his campaign for perhaps a promotion at some point in the future.

Friday at Shanghai International Circuit was a much different story.

Both Tsunoda and Visa Cash App RB F1 Team teammate Daniel Ricciardo struggled at times on Friday, but while Ricciardo advanced into SQ2 — outperforming his teammate in qualifying for the first time this season — Tsunoda’s Sprint Qualifying session ended in SQ1, as he finished in P19.

“I struggled with the balance and grip in general from FP1. Even for Sprint Qualifying, we tried different things, but I couldn’t put it all together. Not sure what’s happening there but it definitely was not easy today,” said Tsunoda in VCARB’s post-qualifying report. “It’s not because of the weather and the general track conditions, I just could not achieve more. I haven’t struggled this much so far. It’s strange, but there are still sessions to go, so we’ll continue collecting the data. Qualifying tomorrow is very important so hopefully, we can find something until then, so let’s see how it goes.”

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