Motor Sports

Emphatic Verstappen enjoys 'incredible' pole after China sprint win

SHANGHAI: Max Verstappen continued his dominant start to the season in emphatic style Saturday by romping to sprint victory then claiming pole position for the Chinese Grand Prix – an "incredible" 100th for his Red Bull team.

It was an ominous display from Verstappen, who looks on course to win a fourth grand prix out of five on Sunday as he marches towards a fourth consecutive world title.

The Red Bull driver was 0.322 seconds clear of Sergio Perez as Red Bull locked up the front row, with Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso third on Formula One's return to China after five years away.

Verstappen clocked a fastest lap of 1min 33.660sec to record the team milestone and his first pole at the Shanghai International Circuit.

"Before I jumped in the car (Red Bull chief Christian) Horner told me if you get pole today it could be number 100 for the team, so I was like, 'OK, that's nice, I'll give it a good go'," Verstappen said.

"Of course that's an incredible achievement for the whole team."

Verstappen won the 19-lap sprint in the morning by a huge 13 seconds from Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes as the Dutchman laid down a marker for Sunday's 56-lap race.

"The car worked even better in qualifying," said Verstappen.

"That final lap felt pretty decent and very happy to drive here in the dry, it was a lot of fun.

"If the car is even half as good tomorrow as it was in the sprint we will be all right."

Lando Norris will start on the second row in his McLaren alongside Alonso for the first grand prix to be held in China since 2019 because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

Oscar Piastri was fifth fastest in the second McLaren ahead of the Ferrari pair of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, with George Russell's Mercedes eighth.

Perez was relieved to be on the front row.

"Very intense, I nearly got knocked out in Q1," said the Mexican. "In the final run the track was getting quite a bit better and I managed to put a good lap together."

Leclerc said he hoped Ferrari could be stronger on Sunday.

"We compromised our qualifying by prioritising the race tomorrow and struggled slightly more than we expected," said Leclerc.

"Our race pace is strong and it will be a long one, with tyre degradation playing a big role here."

Earlier, Verstappen blasted from fourth on the sprint grid to an easy victory that increased his championship lead over Perez to 25 points.

But Hamilton's joy at coming second turned to despair in Q1 when the Englishman locked up, relegating him to 18th.

It was the first time since the 2022 Saudi Grand Prix that the seven-time world champion had been knocked out so early.

"I made massive changes into qualifying," said Hamilton who won the last Chinese Grand Prix in 2019.

"It is what it is. We can still have some fun even if we are starting from P18."

Sainz is the only driver apart from Verstappen to win a grand prix in 2024 and he survived a huge scare in Q2.

The Spaniard ran wide at the final bend and span across the start-finish straight to lose his nose cone in the barriers.

It brought out the red flags but Sainz was able to limp back to the pits and make it to the top 10 shootout.

"I had a big moment there, touching the gravel," Sainz said. "From then on, a tough quali. I just don't think we have been very quick this weekend. It's a difficult track for us."

Huge crowds turned out to see Shanghai native Zhou Guanyu, China's first Formula One driver, on the first Chinese Grand Prix weekend since 2019.

The fans had plenty to cheer Friday when Zhou propelled his Sauber into the top 10 in a wet sprint qualifying but he narrowly missed out on scoring a sprint point by finishing ninth.

Zhou failed to make it out of Q1, to groans from the packed grandstands, and will start 16th on the grid.--AFP

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