Lando Norris: Russian GP pole won in conditions where the best stand out
For Lando Norris, that moment had come all year round, though he never would have said it himself.
The modest and self-effacing 21-year-old Briton was one of the stars of the season behind the wheel of his McLaren. There have been a number of remarkable performances. And on Saturday in Russia, he pulled out the best of the lot for his first pole position in Formula 1.
As the statements went on, it was a big problem. More than half a second ahead of everyone else, more than two seconds faster than his teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who finished fifth. Norris had long established himself as one of F1’s brightest rising stars; it was only the final confirmation.
It was a pole won in the kind of conditions in which the best drivers always stand out, a qualifying session that started with a wet track that slowly dried up to the point that it was pretty much ready for the tires. “Slick” not finish.
Norris was one of the many drivers who entered the pits early enough to do two laps on slicks in the final minutes, to ensure they were at the optimum temperature for the best performance – which Mercedes drivers did. clearly did not, to their detriment.
These are particularly demanding circumstances, in which racing drivers venture into the unknown, and the slightest mistake, a few inches from the only dry line, can spell disaster. And Norris judged them perfectly.
“The hard thing is, these are 10 of the best people in the world trying to do these tricks,” Norris said, “so you can’t just drive under the limit and know what to expect.
“Sometimes you have to push and find out if you’ve been successful once you’ve come across the corner.
“There were quite a few corners where I thought, ‘Maybe I was a little harsh here and this could all go wrong.’ It’s just the level you have to be at to be in this position, so I’m glad I took those risks and made those decisions because they paid off.
“Several times during the lap I thought that everything was going to turn very badly and that I was going to ruin everything, especially in the last chicane, turns 15 and 16. It was still very wet in this section and I was had quite a few big skates and big snags. But I kept it cool and brought it home. It was fun. “
The result was, in the admiring words of teammate Ricciardo, “a very good lap – a great lap”.
Norris could already have a pole position this year – he was also on the right pace in the wet at the Belgian Grand Prix last month. But this time it ended in disaster, when he lost control at Eau Rouge and tore his car to pieces.
This time he was right on the right side of the risk / reward line, and it paid off dramatically.
At his side, at the head of an unexpected starting line-up, Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and George Russell of Williams both did a remarkable job in the conditions. Russell, in particular, once again excelled and took her second place in the top three on the grid in four races, having placed the Williams in first place at Spa.
Sainz and Russell form a buffer between Norris and the man who is probably still the favorite for the win given the performance of his car, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
But the pace of the Mercedes is far from being Norris’ only concern. The race to the first corner in Sochi is the longest on the calendar, and the track is renowned for offering wake-up opportunities at the start that can make starting second and third an advantage over being up front. .
Norris’ pole comes just two weeks after Ricciardo’s victory for McLaren in Italy, having passed Max Verstappen’s Red Bull at the start and led throughout.
Other than racing from the start to the first corner, overtaking certainly isn’t any easier in Sochi than in Monza, so what does Norris think his chances of securing two out of every two McLaren wins?
“Daniel was a lot more positive and confident the last time around,” Norris replied. “He said he was going to go out and have a win and he did.
“Maybe I need to change my approach a bit more. Normally I’m more pessimistic and if that turns out to be positive it’s better, rather than being positive and then having a negative.
“I’ll do my best. I’m going to go. I believe we can. There is an opportunity for that, but Mercedes is still as fast as it has been all season and this is one of their best circuits all season. It’s going to be a good challenge but I’m up for it. “
Hamilton “embarrassed” by pit lane error
Until the last five minutes of the session, the pole seemed to go in the direction of Hamilton.
Mercedes have always been strong in Sochi – no other team has won there since making their debut on the calendar in 2014 – and Hamilton was the fastest in the first two qualifying sessions and the opening runs of the last session.
But everything went wrong for him when he switched to slick tires.
Mercedes made this call later than the others – it’s always harder to take that risk when you’re ahead, because there’s more to lose and less to gain. The weather was tight. Hamilton slid wide as he passed the last corner in the pit lane and hit the wall, first in the back, then in the front, smashing his front wing.
Pandemonium followed in the Mercedes booth. Hamilton’s slick tires were fitted, but he also needed a new front wing. Meanwhile, his teammate Valtteri Bottas was waiting for his new set of tires.
Hamilton was pushed aside to give Bottas the chance to come out, and by the time the seven-time champion walked away he had been standing still for over a minute. His tires had lost temperature – critical in these conditions – and he spun off on his last lap.
It was far from his best performance, even though his intermediate lap early in the session was so good – 0.7 seconds faster than Bottas – that he still managed to qualify as fourth.
Later, team boss Toto Wolff said the pit lane fiasco made no difference – because they delayed their pitstop for the tires long enough for it to fail. There is never time for a spin on slicks, not both. required for best performance.
It seemed to some that Hamilton had wasted a golden opportunity to maximize his result with title rival Max Verstapp by starting from behind after a grid penalty for using too many engines. But Hamilton denied it had anything to do with it.
“It really was nothing to do with the pressure,” he said. “It wasn’t a pressure scenario. It was literally just mistakes that happen.
“I knew I didn’t have a lot of time and I was pushing. I was trying to get through the pit lane as fast as possible because I knew I would need as much time as possible on the track.
“The previous times when I got into the pit lane I took it really slowly. The track was drying up and the grip was really really good, and I took it a little faster than normal and I just lost the back and slipped into the wall.
“Yes, of course embarrassing and disappointed in myself. But we all make mistakes.
“Of course, that’s not what you expect from a world champion, but the problem when you have the success that I have is that everything but perfection seems far away, but I’m only a human.
“My dad called me afterwards and we talked about it and you move on and I’m going to focus on racing again and hopefully be in a good race.”
Hamilton’s collision with the pit wall – and a subsequent lighter touch with the wall when he spun in his last race – gave him moments of anxiety as Mercedes checked the car for damage , although he said the first indications were that everything should be fine. .
If he retains his fourth place on the grid, he still has a major opportunity to score a significant number of points on Verstappen, depending on where the Red Bull driver recovers.
The three drivers in front of him know that the Mercedes is a much faster car than theirs, and that it won’t be easy to hold it back. Hamilton has not won since the British Grand Prix in July. And if he somehow manages to rise to the fore, a historic 100th career victory is up for grabs.
“It will come when it does, but of course I will give him absolutely everything tomorrow in his pursuit,” said Hamilton. “That’s a big number. It looks like it took longer than ever before, but it’s a pretty cool number to look forward to.”