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Lando Norris: A Russian GP pole won in conditions in which the best stand out


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For Lando Norris, this moment had been coming all year, even if he would never have said so himself.

The modest and self-effacing 21-year-old Briton has been one of the stars of the season in his McLaren. There have been a number of standout performances. And in Russia on Saturday he pulled out the best of the lot for his maiden Formula 1 pole position.

As statements go, this was a big one. More than half a second clear of anyone else, more than two seconds quicker than team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who was fifth fastest. Norris had long ago marked himself out as one of F1's brightest rising stars; this was just the final confirmation.

It was a pole won in the sort of conditions in which the best drivers always stand out, a qualifying session that started with a wet track that slowly dried throughout to the point that it was just about ready for untreaded 'slick' tyres right at the end.

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Norris was one of a number of drivers who came into the pits early enough to do two laps on slicks in the final minutes, to ensure they were up to the optimum temperature for the best performance - something that the Mercedes drivers conspicuously did not, to their detriment.

These are especially demanding circumstances, in which racing drivers are venturing into the unknown, and the tiniest mistake, a few centimetres off the one dry line, can lead to disaster. And Norris judged them to perfection.

"The difficult thing is that it is 10 of the best people in the world trying to put these laps in," Norris said, "so you can't just drive around under the limit and know what to expect.

"Sometimes you have to push it over and find out whether you've made it once you've gone through the corner.

"There were quite a few corners where I thought: 'I might have gone in a bit hard here and this all could go rather wrong.' But it didn't. That's just the level you've got to be at to be in this position, so I'm happy I took those risks and made those decisions because they paid off.

"Many times during the lap I thought it was all going to go quite badly wrong and I was going to mess it up, especially in the final chicane, Turns 15 and 16. It was still very wet in that section and I had quite a few big wheel-spins and big snaps. But I kept it cool and brought it home. It was fun."

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The result was, in the admiring words of team-mate Ricciardo, "a very good lap - a great lap".

Norris might already have a pole position this year - he was right on the pace in the wet at the Belgian Grand Prix last month, too. But that time it did end in disaster, when he lost control at Eau Rouge and smashed his car to bits.

This time he was just on the right side of the line between risk and reward, and it paid off in spectacular style.

Joining him at the front of an unexpected starting line-up are Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and Williams' George Russell, both also doing an outstanding job in the conditions. Russell, in particular, once again excelled and took his second top three grid slot in four races, after sticking the Williams on the front row at Spa.

Sainz and Russell form a buffer between Norris and the man who is probably still the favourite for the race win given the performance of his car, Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton.

But the pace of the Mercedes is far from Norris' only concern. The run to the first corner at Sochi is the longest on the calendar, and the track is famous for providing slipstreaming opportunities at the start that can make starting second and third an advantage over being at the front.

Norris' pole comes just two weeks after Ricciardo won for McLaren in Italy, having passed Max Verstappen's Red Bull at the start and led throughout.

Apart from the run from the start to the first corner, overtaking is certainly no easier in Sochi than in Monza, so what does Norris think his chances are of making it two McLaren wins from two?

"Daniel was a lot more positive and confident of it last time out," Norris replied. "He said he was going to go out and get a win and he did.

"Maybe I need to change my approach a little bit more. Normally I am more downbeat and then if it turns out positive it's better, rather than being positive and then coming up with a negative.

"I will try my best. I will go for it. I believe we can. There is an opportunity for it, but Mercedes are still a quick as they have been all season and this is one of their best circuits all season. It is going to be a good challenge but I'm up for it."

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