Pole came with 'my best lap by long way' - Norris

Close-up picture of Lando Norris wearing a McLaren cap
Lando Norris' only other pole position for an F1 race came in Russia in 2021 [Getty Images]

Lando Norris said it took "an amazing lap, my best lap by a long way" to finally take a pole position for McLaren this year.

Norris has a victory already in 2024, and could possibly have one or two more. But a grand prix pole had eluded him since Russia in 2021 - he said he didn’t count the two he had earned for sprint races in China this season and Brazil last.

And as he sat in his car in the McLaren garage before his final lap in qualifying at the Spanish Grand Prix, the 24-year-old Briton knew just what he had to do.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had been out of reach so far, and Norris could see where he was losing out - in the fast corners around the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. He steeled himself.

"I knew for the final lap, I've got to go balls out and do it, you know?" Norris said. "And that little bit I was needing to get out of Max I managed to get. So I'm happy the risks paid off, and for all of it to come together when I needed it most was great."

Norris managed to take Turn Nine absolutely flat out, and 14, the final corner, with a small lift. It was just enough. The pole margin, in the end, was 0.02secs.

"When I looked at the data after Q1, Q2, I was losing probably a tenth and a half, almost two tenths, to Max just in two corners," Norris said. "And that was just the two corners where I was least comfortable.

"But it was just about kind of committing and hoping I came out on the other side in one piece. And for that final lap, that's exactly what I needed to do, and it's exactly what I did."

Norris becomes the third different driver from three different teams in the past three races to beat Verstappen to pole. The season is suddenly looking very different than it did just a few races ago, when the Dutchman appeared to have picked up his domination where he left off last year.

"I said at the beginning of the season we were going to win and we were going to fight against Red Bull and that they weren't going to dominate like they had done, and it's turned out exactly to be that," Norris said, "which is I think good for everyone, including everyone watching."

How did Norris do it?

Wresting pole from Verstappen took what Norris described as "a perfect lap", and no small degree of courage.

As Lewis Hamilton, who qualified third in the Mercedes, put it, the final corner is "full gas at 280 or something like that kilometres an hour, which is amazing".

Norris added: "The car's moving around, it's bouncing a little bit. It just doesn't fill you with confidence going around such a corner when the car's doing those things.

"It can be quite unpredictable in such a high-speed corner. It's a bit nerve-wracking to commit and know when to take the risks.

"Over the weekend, I took risks in pushing and running into the gravel a few times and damaged the floor a little bit here and there. I've been pushing the limits, I'd say, the whole weekend, but maybe not as much in the very high speed, where the consequences are more.

"It was just whether I wanted to take the risk of kind of pushing that bit more and trying to get that little bit that I needed for a pole."

If Verstappen was disappointed, he was hiding it well. The reason he had been so quick in the high-speed, he said, was because the team had put more downforce on the car after a difficult Friday. In qualifying, at least, it may have limited him.

Verstappen said: "In the very high speed, we were particularly strong around the laps, with Turns Three, Nine, and the last corner, which were quite comfortably flat.

"But I guess in a way probably that's why we were not improving that much in the final few runs because those corners are flat, so there's nothing to gain, and then there are not that many corners left around the track.

"So I did make my gains but I probably was already flat where maybe Lando wasn't flat before and then you just lose out a little bit with that.

"So maybe (the car was) a bit too draggy for qualifying, looking back at it. But that's something that is always very easy to say afterwards because the whole of the weekend we were just sliding around too much and now probably it was finally hooked up and you probably would have turned down the wing a little bit."

For Norris, though, the risk may well turn out to be worth it. The Spanish Grand Prix track is notorious as a difficult place to overtake - out of 33 races there, 24 have been won from pole.

Having more downforce will help Verstappen keep his tyres in good shape in a race that everyone agrees will be defined by tyre degradation.

But if Norris can convert pole into a lead at the first corner, he will have the benefits of running in clear air with his car working at its optimum, while his rivals will struggle more to keep their tyre temperatures under control because of the detrimental effect of the loss of downforce by running behind another car.

"It's an opportunity for us to go out and try and win a race, you know?" Norris said. "I hope I can have just a good start and kind of control it from there. But I'm sure the whole race I'm going to be under pressure."

Lando Norris drives his McLaren in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix
Before third practice on Saturday, Norris and other McLaren staff and guests had to evacuate their hospitality area when a fire broke out. One member of staff went to hospital but team boss Zak Brown later said "everyone is fine" [Getty Images]

Mercedes revival confirmed

For Hamilton in third place, this race was something of a breakthrough after a difficult start to the season.

And for his Mercedes team was it was something similar.

The eight-time constructors' champions have been making progress in recent races with a series of upgrades, and they had been looking to Barcelona, a very different characteristic of circuit from the last few, to confirm that their performance upturn would apply across all types of tracks.

Third and fourth places on the grid - ahead of both Ferraris, which have a significant upgrade in Spain this weekend - was pretty good confirmation, even if Hamilton was just over 0.3secs from pole.

"It's a pretty big chunk," Hamilton said. "For a track like this, it's not too bad. Through the lap, there's a little bit of time (to make up), I think. It probably could have been two tenths, but still they have a slight advantage.

"But for us to be that close on a track like this is a real good showing that we're going in the right direction. We've got some improvements that we need to bring over the next few races in order for us to be properly in range of those guys."

For Hamilton himself, it was the first time he had out-qualified Russell since Japan back in early April, and only the second time in 10 races this year.

In recent grands prix, he has seemed perplexed as to why he was struggling in qualifying. But inside the team they have felt that he was perhaps losing out when he tried to hustle the final bit of lap time out of the car. And on Saturday Hamilton all but confirmed it.

"I still lost a little bit going into quali," he said. "It's all about perspective. Maybe they just moved forwards, but I definitely feel like there was a little bit more.

"But just as you start to push the car, it doesn't like it. So in practice, when you leave a little bit of margin, the car feels quite nice. But it's when you start to really lean on it to try and get that extra bit of lap time out where we really struggle. And I think it's all in the tyres."

Can Mercedes challenge in the race? "These two will be very quick, but position is everything," Hamilton said, referring to Norris and Verstappen.

"The bigger concern probably is the Ferraris behind us. Obviously, we were all within half a tenth. And they had an upgrade this weekend, and their long-run pace looks quite strong.

"It's more working together as a team and trying to hold position at least. If we happen to have more pace available to us and we're able to hold on to these guys, then it's game on. But we really won't know until tomorrow.

"Degradation is always the key here. And when you have a really good rear end, you can save the rear tyres. So that's going to be key."

Lando Norris, with his arms folded, stood next to Lewis Hamilton
Lando Norris is third in the drivers' championship with Lewis Hamilton in eighth [Getty Images]