NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Lando Norris Takes Shock Pole in Wet Qualifying

The rain arrived early in Sochi, cancelling the third free practice, and while the rain had stopped by the time qualifying got underway, the track was still damp, forcing the drivers to start qualifying on wet or intermediate tires. However, with around five minutes left in Q3, the track began to dry out, and Williams’ George Russell switched to slicks, prompting a flurry of activity in the pits as other drivers gambled for the dry tires.

This forced provisional pole sitter Lewis Hamilton to dive for the pits to cover off the potential gains made by the others on the slick tires, but this is when everything when wrong for the Mercedes driver. As he entered pit lane, he clipped the wall, destroying his front wing and necessitating a lengthy pit stop. After he finally emerged, he pushed a bit too hard as he tried to get one more fast lap in before the checkered flag, spinning and tapping the wall.

This opened up the possibilities for the midfield drivers, and McLaren’s Lando Norris swiped pole with an excellent lap time of 1:41.993. Behind him came Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz, who had briefly occupied provision pole before being pushed down to second by his teammate from last season. Miraculously, third position went to Russell, who will start alongside Hamilton on the second row. This is his second top three qualifying in a Williams this season, which basically no one could have predicted at the start of the year. 

Hamilton will line up ahead of the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo, who is still riding high after his sensational victory last time out in Monza but whose strong drive to fifth today was overshadowed by his teammate’s pole position. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso will start in sixth and his teammate Esteban Ocon will line up down in 10th, a solid day for the French team. Valtteri Bottas is normally the king of the Sochi Autodrom, collecting his first win here in 2017 and winning in last year’s Russian Grand Prix as well. However, he wasn’t able to hook up a lap on the dry tires at the end of the session and wound up down in seventh. 

He will start the Grand Prix just ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, who is normally a strong qualifier in changeable conditions but wasn’t able to improve as much as the others on his final dry-tire attempt. Ninth place went to Sergio Perez, not an ideal result for Red Bull, who would have been hoping Perez could qualify ahead of the Mercedes and make their race difficult as championship contender Max Verstappen tries to battle his way to the front tomorrow.

Unlike the final few minutes of Q3, Q2 was a fairly calm affair, with no major incidents, but there were a few surprise eliminations. Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel was pushed out of the top 10 by Alonso, ending up in 11th. He will be frustrated to have been beaten by his teammate and have missed a chance to take advantage of the tricky conditions in Q3. Behind him came the two Alpha Tauri drivers. Yuki Tsunoda has typically struggled in qualifying, making his 13th position not that out of ordinary. However, Pierre Gasly, who is normally in the top 10, only managed 12th, a disappointing result for the French driver. In 14th was Nicholas Latifi, who will be taking new power unit parts for the grand prix tomorrow and thus will start from the back of the grid. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc did not have the pace of his teammate Sainz and will start in 15th. 

In Q1, Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi had a scary moment when he lost control of the rear of his car at turn 16, spinning around and nearly taking out Leclerc. Giovinazzi had spun in the same place in practice, but while he ended up in the wall on Friday, he managed to keep the car intact today and continue with qualifying. However, Giovinazzi wasn’t able to string together a strong lap, and was eliminated in Q1, finishing 18th. His teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, had more pace but was still unable to get out of Q1, placing 16th. 

After struggling to keep up with his teammate Nikita Mazepin all weekend, Haas driver Mick Schumacher ended up placing ahead of Mazepin in qualifying, putting his Haas in 17th for tomorrow’s grid. Mazepin, meanwhile, finished qualifying in 19th. Verstappen will be taking a new engine in his Red Bull, meaning he will start from the back of the grid, and after taking a brief look at the conditions, Verstappen effectively withdrew from qualifying, meaning he will start at the back tomorrow. 

In other news this week, Haas confirmed that it will retain the driver lineup of Schumacher and Mazepin for the 2022 season. This did not come as a surprise and was likely a fairly obvious decision for team owner Gene Haas and team principal Gunther Steiner. Next season will bring all new technical regulations and drastically different aerodynamic packages on the cars, promising the possibility of an entirely shaken up grid. Keeping two drivers who know the team well will be a smart move, as new drivers would have to adapt and might not be able not capitalize on the more open playing field. 

Also, since both drivers are rookies this season and are driving in the worst car, their dismal results shouldn’t be judged too harshly. They have both likely learned an incredible amount this year that they can really put to the test next year, which will be a better barometer for if they are F1 material. Schumacher, of course, has promise as a Formula 3 and Formula 2 champion and the son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, and Ferrari likely had a hand in keeping him in the seat. Mazepin, on the other hand, brings massive amounts of funds through his father, who is a key shareholder in title sponsor Uralkali. 

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