Britain’s brightest young stars shone through the rain and gloom of qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix. With McLaren’s Lando Norris claiming his first pole and George Russell in third for Williams, this was definitive notice that Formula’s One’s future is in rude health. Their role model and inspiration, Lewis Hamilton, was in their wake, however, disappointed and apologetic after a highly unusual error left him in fourth place.
Hamilton held his hands up after he clipped the wall on the entrance to the pitlane. “It was a mistake. I am incredibly disappointed in myself,” he said. “Up until then I was in the groove, I was in the zone. That is not what you expect from a champion.”
Norris and McLaren were rightly ecstatic after grabbing the top spot. After their first win for nine years at the last round in Monza, Norris has now gained their first pole since 2012. He delivered with timing and precision to master tricky, wet and drying conditions with an ease and confidence Hamilton would recognise, finishing a full half-second up on the second-placed Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.
“It was tough. I am going to make myself sound good but it was tricky,” said Norris. “The lap before, I was two seconds down and I was not confident we would improve. I kept the tyres warm, I risked quite a bit, but it paid off. It is my first pole position and hopefully the first of many.”
For Russell, who will join Hamilton at Mercedes next season, he once more outperformed his car to nail a superb final lap. He was the first driver to try slick tyres over the final laps and his choice was the right one, as the grip came to him so he rose to the occasion.
Norris is still only 21 and is now the youngest British driver to take pole, while Russell is 23. Both are in their third season in F1 and their performances confirm these are two of the most promising young drivers in the sport.
Behind them Hamilton, with seven titles and at 36 so often the master of changing conditions, floundered just when presented with the best opportunity to put the squeeze on title rival, Max Verstappen. The Dutchman has a five-point lead in the championship but will start at the back of the grid because of penalties for taking his fourth power unit. This was Hamilton’s chance to regain the lead with a big points haul.
He may yet win but a pole would have made it far easier. In the final minutes of Q3, Hamilton hit the wall on his way back into the pits and took damage to his left-front wing, which had to be replaced. Mercedes got him out but only with enough time to put in one quick lap.
A drying line had allowed the teams to take the chance on slick tyres and Norris and Russell switched early to make several laps on the new rubber to put heat into them before their final laps. After fitting a new nose Hamilton had only one out lap to do so and lacking temperature, spun on his final lap.
The team principal, Toto Wolff, said Mercedes had committed to their plan of opening laps in Q3 on the intermediate tyres and thus would not have had time to do more than one out-lap on the slicks, suggesting that regardless of Hamilton’s accident he would still not have had time to warm his tyres. Given the conditions, having a banker time on the inters made sense but it was the opposition’s gamble that paid off.
Persistent heavy rain all morning had threatened qualifying, with final practice being abandoned because of the conditions but it went ahead on a tricky, wet track where Mercedes appeared to have the whip hand until the final moments.
On his first hot lap in Q3 and with the teams still running on the intermediate tyres Hamilton had the edge, quickest at seven-tenths up on his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, before the final drama unfolded and Norris produced a magnificent run of 1min 41.993sec.
Hamilton remained optimistic: overtaking is possible at Sochi and dry weather is expected on Sunday. With Mercedes having demonstrably the quickest car here over the weekend he can come back but F1’s next generation will have no fear of taking on the champion and will certainly not be inclined to make it easy.
Daniel Ricciardo was in fifth for McLaren. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were in sixth and 10th for Alpine, with Bottas in seventh. Lance Stroll was in eighth for Aston Martin and Sergio Pérez in ninth for Red Bull.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was in 15th but, having taken a fourth new power unit, will start from 19th. Williams’ Nicholas Latifi also took new power unit components and was in 14th but will start from 18th.
Sebastian Vettel was in 11th for Aston Martin with the AlphaTauris of Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda in 12th and 13th.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi were in 16th and 18th, with Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin in 17th and 19th for Haas.