How Lando Norris Shocked the F1 Grid and Gave McLaren its First F1 Pole in 9 Years

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Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - Getty Images
Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - Getty Images

Lando Norris has been McLaren’s shining star for most of the season, taking four podiums, but in Italy it was Daniel Ricciardo who ended the team’s nine-year wait for a win.

Norris, who has spent his entire Formula 1 career at McLaren, dutifully revelled in the team’s celebrations 13 days ago but on Saturday at the Russian Grand Prix it was his turn to be center stage. Norris claimed a surprise pole position in a wet/dry qualifying session at the Sochi Autodrom, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz an improbable second, and Williams’ George Russell an equally unexpected third.

It was not only the first pole position in Formula 1 for third-season driver Norris but also ended McLaren’s 3,227-day wait to take top spot in the Saturday shootout session.

McLaren's last pole in Formula 1 was by Lewis Hamilton at Brazil in 2012.

Photo credit: YURI KOCHETKOV - Getty Images
Photo credit: YURI KOCHETKOV - Getty Images

But how did it happen?

Max Verstappen, winner of eight of the 14 poles in 2021, entered the day knowing he’d start last due to an engine penalty, so completed just an installation lap to ensure he qualified.

Charles Leclerc, who has claimed two pole positions this year, was in a similar predicament.

And then there was the weather. Heavy rain lashed Sochi Autodrom through Saturday, forcing the cancellation of final practice, with support events Formula 2 and Formula 3 also binned. It is the worst weather Formula 1 has experienced at the coastal venue since Sochi joined the schedule in 2014.

Conditions improved in time for qualifying to begin on schedule and drivers needed the mixed-weather Intermediate tyres for most of the three-stage session.

But midway through the Q3 pole shootout the crossover point was reached and it was dry enough for slicks – and in came the drivers to make the move.

World Champion Lewis Hamilton, at that point fastest, made an uncharacteristic error by sliding into the wall as he entered pitlane, copping damage to the left-hand-side of the car. Mercedes was able to undertake quick repairs but even without that incident he had insufficient time left to put his slick tires into the best operating window for the conditions. He then spun on his sole hot lap on slicks anyway.

Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images
Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images

Norris, who had been second in the wet, used his slick tires to move fastest, while other early converts to the slicks Sainz and Russell slotted in behind the Briton.

“It feels incredible,” said Norris. “To dream of this since I was a little kid… but now for it to happen. I guess there’s been a few times this season where I’ve been close and had the opportunity but I’ve missed out, sometimes my mistakes, sometimes the team, but today we put it together. One thing that makes it even better is the risk you have to put into a lap like that, the unknown of going into a corner and just hope for the best, if you make it through on the exit, you’re like one down, more to go! It all paid off in the end.”

Hamilton fessed up to his mistakes but still has a realistic shot of win number 100 from fourth on the grid. None of the three drivers up front have won a race while Hamilton’s Mercedes team has never been defeated at Sochi Autodrom in seven attempts.

“I’m really sorry to all the team that are here and the ones back at the factory because that’s not what you expect from a champion,” he said. “Very poor grip, very slippery when you don’t have any temp. I was losing temp during the lap. Twice in the wall, that’s very rare for me.”

With four different teams in the top four, and some surprising names up front, the long 800-meter plus run down to the first braking point is sure to be one to watch.

F1 Russian Grand Prix Qualifying

How They'll Line Up Sunday

  1. Lando Norris, McLaren

  2. Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari

  3. George Russell, Williams

  4. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

  5. Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren

  6. Fernando Alonso, Alpine

  7. Valtterri Bottas, Mercedes

  8. Lance Stroll, Aston Martin

  9. Sergio Perez, Red Bull

  10. Esteban Ocon, Alpine

  11. Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin

  12. Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri

  13. Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri

  14. Nicholas Latifi, Williams

  15. Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo

  16. Mick Schumacher, Haas

  17. Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo

  18. Nikita Mazepin, Haas

  19. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

  20. *Max Verstappen, Red Bull

* Taking grid penalty for engine change.

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