Fire and ice in China as trackside flames spark ‘wild’ F1 sprint qualifying

Grass runoffs during sprint qualifying at the Chinese Grand Prix
Trackside fires caused the sprint qualifying session to be halted - Sky Sports F1

The Shanghai International Circuit briefly caught fire on Friday as sparks flew onto a patch of grass before heavy rain in the final part of sprint qualifying turned the track into an “ice rink”.

A chaotic session eventually ended with a pair of Britons on the front row, McLaren’s Lando Norris just pipping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to pole to set up an interesting weekend in China.

With Red Bull’s Max Verstappen only able to qualify fourth fastest for Saturday’s 19-lap sprint race, the hope will be that there is some action at the front for once.

That may depend on the weather. If conditions on Saturday are dry, Verstappen, who has won every race this season bar the Australian Grand Prix when his car suffered a brake failure, is likely to be able to move through the field and assume his habitual position at the front.

If not, there may be an opportunity for Norris or Hamilton to take stay ahead of him. Even if it is dry, there is always the potential for drama as Verstappen tries to pass his rivals. Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso also starts ahead of him in third spot.

In truth, it is difficult to know where everyone stands after such a chaotic day. Sprint weekends only allow for one practice session before qualifying takes place, and Friday’s first session was red-flagged when a patch of grass next to Turn 7 caught fire. In qualifying the grass was set ablaze again, this time at Turn 5.

Although both fires were quickly extinguished, the incidents – which governing body the FIA believes were caused by sparks flying off the drivers’ cars – will be a concern.

Anything that helps to ignite the season is welcome though. And Saturday’s sprint race could be interesting.

Unlike last year, the sprint race now takes place on a Saturday morning with a qualifying session for Sunday’s main race taking place in the afternoon. That means that there is no time for teams to fine-tune their setups on Saturday morning before getting under way.

“It [the sprint race] has got the probability of throwing up quite a few variables and, perhaps, some unexpected results,” Red Bull principal Christian Horner conceded. ”I think it’s going to be all action.”

Norris, who briefly lost pole before his final flying lap was reinstated by the stewards, said it had been “all or nothing” for him as the rain lashed down in the final part of qualifying.

“It was wild,” said Norris. “You always know it is going to be in a session like this.

“You only have three laps. The first two I aborted so that last lap was all or nothing. I was nervous because I made a few mistakes, but you have to risk a lot and push and I was quick.”

Verstappen likened it to “driving on ice”, a sensation which was welcomed by Hamilton, who has endured his worst start ever to a season. His Mercedes team mate George Russell was eliminated in 11th in the dry – but when the rain landed, the seven-time world champion looked at home as he secured his spot on the front row.

“I am so happy,” said the 39-year-old, who failed to finish inside the top six at any of the opening four rounds.

“When I saw the rain coming I was getting excited because in the dry we are not quick enough. I thought I would have a better opportunity and that is when it all came alive.

“Tomorrow depends on the conditions and if it is like that, maybe we will have a chance of being somewhere up there, but if it is dry the Ferraris and Red Bull will come by.”

Saturday’s sprint takes place at 11am local time (04:00 BST) ahead of qualifying for Sunday’s main event.

Norris beats Hamilton to Chinese GP sprint pole – as it happened

09:47 AM BST

Lewis Hamilton reacts to a front row

“It was very tricky, tricky conditions. Not a lot of grip. Yeah, so happy. As soon as I saw the rain coming I was getting excited because in dry conditions we are not quick enough. When the rain came [was] when it all came alive. If it’s like that [wet] then may we have a chance of being somewhere up there, if it’s dry then naturally the Ferraris and Red Bulls will come by but maybe we can hold off some others.”

09:45 AM BST

George Russell speaks

“It wasn’t easy at all. That one lap in Q2 we tried sending it as early as we could but then [got caught in a queue in the pit lane]... lost the tyre temperature. One more tenth and you were four or five positions higher. Just a shame to be on the bottom end of that.”

09:43 AM BST

Toto Wolff speaks to Ted Kravitz

He first speaks about the reinstatement of Norris’s lap: “I haven’t seen the detail... honestly that was even slower so he probably could have gone faster, so I am okay with that,” he says.

On Russell lagging behind Hamilton: “I think the driving is most important in the wet but I think it shows it’s about tyre preparation.”

09:39 AM BST

Lando Norris reacts to pole for the sprint

09:38 AM BST

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella speaks to Sky Sports

In these conditions it was very much a drivers job to be done so very well to Lando. Overall a good session for us, we are happy [despite Piastri’s issue]. We can enjoy a pole position which is deserved by Lando. I hope everyone at McLaren can enjoy this day.

He believes that he track limits deletion and then reinstatement was as below and says that they did not lobby the FIA to change the ruling on that.

09:31 AM BST

Why was Norris’s lap time deleted and then reinstated?

Normally if you go over track limits on the final corner you lose that lap and the next one. Yet Norris ran very wide and almost through the gravel which would have given him no advantage on either lap. But I think they only reinstated the second one. Not sure Mercedes are going to protest. Perhaps if it was a grand prix and not a sprint, maybe but we will see. Either way it was a strange end to an enthralling qualifying session.

09:29 AM BST

Damon Hill enjoyed that one

09:24 AM BST

SQ3 - Classification

  1. NOR 1:57.940

  2. HAM +1.261

  3. ALO +1.975

  4. VER +2.088

  5. SAI +2.274

  6. PER +2.435

  7. LEC +2.626

  8. PIA +3.050

  9. BOT +3.104

  10. ZHO +5.597

09:23 AM BST

SQ2 - It looks like a Hamilton pole!

He crosses the line as the session ends but they have reinstated Lando Norris’s lap time which puts him top and puts Hamilton down to second!


What?! Perplexed looks in the Mercedes garage and elation in the McLaren one!

What a session that was...

09:22 AM BST

SQ2 - Norris has his lap deleted!

Hamilton is back up to first! He also has another lap to complete. What can Zhou do... not much. He stays 10th.

The rain is getting heavier as Alonso slots into second between Hamilton and Verstappen...

09:20 AM BST

SQ2 - Hamilton goes fastest!

It’s 0.892sec faster than Alonso which suggests the track is getting a but quicker. It’s going to be interesting to see what everyone else does here.

Piastri can’t beat Hamilton. Can anyone else? Verstappen cannot!

Sainz cannot! Norris can!

Can anyone beat him?

09:20 AM BST

SQ2 - Alonso fastest!

0.162sec faster than Perez. Leclerc is on a good lap too but it’s only third!

Verstappen and Hamilton do not have lap times on the board yet... they have one more go. Hamilton might get two...

Norris’s lap indeed gets deleted.

09:19 AM BST

SQ2 - Good lap from Norris

Fastest in the first two sectors...

Verstappen runs wide and through the gravel at the final corner. He carries on but that lap will be deleted for track limits and will not count. He has time for one more lap...

Norris goes second but also runs wide at the final turn...

Perez improves his time. Alonso also on a good lap...

09:18 AM BST

SQ2 - Perez goes fastest

It’s a good lap, two seconds faster than anyone else and 2.5sec faster than Verstappen. Not a bad lap considering he ran wide. But he then has his lap deleted for track limits. A bit odd.

Bottas goes onto the front row provisionally! Then it’s Piastri and Norris!

Verstappen doing a much better job this time, nearly a second up after two sectors. He gets sideways on the long-right hander before the long straight but can he finish the job?

09:16 AM BST

SQ2 - This is a very short session

So not the opportunity for more than a couple of timed laps. This could well be a mixed up grid in the extreme. Zhou on pole anyone? Well, he’s just run wide so maybe not...

09:15 AM BST

SQ2 - Verstappen off at turn six

Not in the barriers, though. He just cannot slow the car down enough... this track has been resurfaced since we last ran here and that usually means any water makes it very, very slippery.

09:15 AM BST

SQ3 - Leclerc is in the barrier

He’s managed to keep it going! Norris had just run off and then nearly lost the rear end when applying the power. Leclerc does well to avoid a bigger, more serious crash there. His car might still be damaged, though. Front wing broken, perhaps, but nothing much more.

Alonso has been noted for a pit lane infringement. More on that when we get 

Is intermediate really the best tyre here?

09:13 AM BST

Fair to say the local crowd are please with Zhou being in the top 10

09:12 AM BST

SQ3 begins!

10 drivers, eight minutes and it will decide how the top 10 line up for tomorrow morning’s sprint race.

09:11 AM BST

FIA on the grass fires

“After a first review of the video footage, it seems like it is sparks coming from cars igniting the fire in the grass run-off area.”

Doubt it’ll be happening in this session...

09:10 AM BST

SQ3 to begin at 9.11am

It is very damp out there now. No doubt that intermediates, at least, is the right choice. This could be fun.

09:06 AM BST

Well, looks like it will be intermediate tyres for SQ3

Nice. Hamilton just went straight on during his in lap. “It’s wet,” he says. It is.

09:05 AM BST

SQ2 - Classification

  1. VER 1:35.606

  2. LEC +0.105

  3. PER +0.175

  4. PIA +0.247

  5. NOR +0.441

  6. SAI +0.446

  7. BOT +0.450

  8. ALO +0.513

  9. HAM +0.681

  10. ZHO +0.701

  11. RUS

  12. MAG

  13. HUL

  14. RIC

  15. STR

09:03 AM BST

SQ2 - Russell is going again

But the rain is coming down heavier and he will not be able to improve. That means he is out... we still have two minutes left but that is almost irrelevant with the track conditions now.

It does, however, mean home lad Zhou is through to SQ3!

09:01 AM BST

SQ2 - Verstappen fastest

But not by a great deal. Just a tenth ahead of Leclerc. Perez slots into third 0.175sec off Verstappen. Russell, Magnussen, Hulkenberg, Ricciardo and Stroll in the drop zone. Both Sauber cars in the top 10. Rain expected very soon.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W15 on track during Sprint Qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 19, 2024 in Shanghai, China
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W15 on track during Sprint Qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 19, 2024 in Shanghai, China

09:00 AM BST

SQ2 - Nice lap from Leclerc

So, the rain is unlikely to effect this session in any way as it looks like all drivers will be able to set a lap time in dry conditions. Russell ninth, Hamilton seventh.  Verstappen about to cross the line...

08:59 AM BST

SQ2 - Norris goes fastest

Piastri beats him by just under a couple of tenths, though... no sign of a downpour just yet.

Sainz third, behind the McLarens. Alonso fourth, 0.266sec behind Piastri’s fastest time.

08:57 AM BST

SQ2 - Perez, Verstappen and Hamilton still in their garages

Are they going to suffer if the rain comes? They will not have waited at the end of the pit lane with cold tyres like the others.

08:56 AM BST

SQ2 begins!

There’s a bit of a bun fight in the pit lane to get track position for these runs. They are all very close as the rain intensifies. A bit of a mess but I am not complaining.

08:53 AM BST

There’s a big queue at the end of the pit lane

But still a couple of minutes until the rain starts.

“We believe the rain will hit us at the end of the timed lap,” Charles Leclerc is told. That is bad timing indeed.

08:52 AM BST

SQ2 will start at 8.54 BST

So pretty soon. The rain has started to come down a little steadier but not enough for intermediate tyres... yet.

08:49 AM BST

SQ2 will be delayed

They are waiting until that trackside fire at turn five has been put out. But will it happen again? Might need a bit more rain...

08:46 AM BST

SQ1 - Classification

  1. PER 1:36.110

  2. NOR +0.274

  3. VER +0.346

  4. LEC +0.427

  5. PIA +0.432

  6. SAI +0.639

  7. ALO +0.776

  8. HUL +0.814

  9. STR +0.851

  10. MAG +0.923

  11. BOT +1.002

  12. HAM +1.071

  13. RUS +1.200

  14. RIC +1.211

  15. ZHO +1.434

  16. GAS

  17. OCO

  18. ALB

  19. TSU

  20. SAR

08:45 AM BST

We have another fire on the track!

Or rather at the side of the track. Leclerc points this out and the grass is on fire on the outside of the track. We haven’t got a red flag, but a yellow flag...  a bit worrying that it has happened again in short order.

08:45 AM BST

SQ1 - Russell finds some lap time in the final sector

He goes 12th, putting Gasly into the drop zone. Hamilton into 10th. Zhou in danger of being eliminated here as Piastri moves fifth. Can Ocon knock out the home driver?

Ocon dives into the pits so Zhou is safe.

08:43 AM BST

SQ1 - Albon about to complete his lap

He hasn’t been out in Q1 - or SQ1 - all that often in the last year or so but he is in danger here, as is George Russell. Albon does not improve, which obviously helps Russell but he still needs to find the lap time. It is not a brilliant middle sector from Russell. Albon is out, Sargeant is also out.

Tsunoda doesn’t improve either, so he is out.

What can Russell do here?

08:41 AM BST

SQ1 - Norris improves to go secone

Even though he had a bit of a moment at the hairpin. Well, he locked up a bit. The bottom five stays the same. Sainz complains that there was a Haas in the way in the first part of the lap. He’s probably right. The final runs are about to get under way. Perez leads the way by 0.274sec from Norris in the McLaren.

  1. PER

  2. NOR

  3. VER

  4. LEC

  5. SAI

  6. ALO

  7. HUL

  8. STR

  9. BOT

  10. PIA

08:39 AM BST

SQ1 - Drivers in the drop zone

Three minutes remain. It’s Albon, Russell, Ocon, Sargeant and Tsunoda who are the bottom five. The rain doesn’t appear to have worsened in the last few minutes.

08:39 AM BST

SQ1 - Alonso fastest by 0.003sec

Can Verstappen beat that? Yes he can by more than four tenths. Yep. He’s quick, isn’t he? What does Perez do? He beats Verstappen by 0.346sec, which is pretty handy.

Red Bull Racing driver Sergio Perez of Mexico in action during the practice session for the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, in Shanghai, China, 19 April 2024. The 2024 Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix is held at the Shanghai International Circuit racetrack on 21 April after a five-year hiatus
Red Bull Racing driver Sergio Perez of Mexico in action during the practice session for the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, in Shanghai, China, 19 April 2024. The 2024 Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix is held at the Shanghai International Circuit racetrack on 21 April after a five-year hiatus

08:37 AM BST

SQ1 - Leclerc goes fastest by 0.353sec ahead of Hamilton

Piastri slots in a couple of hundredths faster than Hamilton. Norris and Alonso on good laps, Alonso fastest in the first sector.

08:36 AM BST

SQ1 - Russell says it is spitting more

If it stays like this then slick tyres might still be good.

Hamilton sets a 1:37.239sec which is 0.253sec faster than Bottas with Zhou and Albon behind. Russell is only fifth when he crosses the line and Sainz third.

08:35 AM BST

SQ1 - Norris reports some light drops of rain

This is a tricky circuit to master at the best of times...

08:33 AM BST

SQ1 - 10 minutes remain

It looks terribly grey out there, if not exactly gloomy. It often is grey around this track, though.

08:31 AM BST


A reminder that this is kind of like the main qualifying but each session is called SQ something rather than Q something and they are shorter.

08:31 AM BST

A wet session?

The official risk of rain for the session is 60 per cent. Interesting...

McLaren's Oscar Piastri of Australia in action during the practice session for the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, in Shanghai, China, 19
McLaren's Oscar Piastri of Australia in action during the practice session for the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, in Shanghai, China, 19

08:25 AM BST

Session times this weekend

Friday April 19

First practice: 4.30am BST
Sprint qualifying: 8.30am

Saturday April 20

Sprint race: 4am
Qualifying: 8am

Sunday April 21

Chinese Grand Prix: 8am

08:20 AM BST

Albon’s panda helmet

F1 helmet designs aren’t what they used to be, but at least this one is clear.

Alexander Albon of Thailand and Williams in the cockpit of his Williams FW46 Mercedes ahead of practice of the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 19, 2024 in Shanghai, China.
Alexander Albon of Thailand and Williams in the cockpit of his Williams FW46 Mercedes ahead of practice of the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 19, 2024 in Shanghai, China.

08:10 AM BST

Lewis Hamilton: People are talking s--- about my future

Lewis Hamilton said “people continue to talk s---” about him amid his worst start to a Formula One season. The 39-year-old has scored just 10 points from the opening four rounds following his Mercedes team’s misfiring start to the campaign.

Read more here.

08:05 AM BST

Current constructor standings

07:58 AM BST

Watch: Fire stops FP1

07:52 AM BST

Current driver standings after four rounds

07:46 AM BST

A bit of a strange order in first practice

I think it’s safe to assume that these are unlikely to be entirely representative. Mercedes did not even run the medium tyre, let alone the soft. It would be nice for things to be this mixed up, but in an hour or two I doubt they will be.

07:45 AM BST

FP1 - Order and times

  1. Lance Stroll, Aston Martin 1:36.302

  2. Oscar Piastri, McLaren +0.327

  3. Max Verstappen, Red Bull +0.358

  4. Sergio Perez, Red Bull +0.388

  5. Nico Hulkenberg, Haas +0.799

  6. Kevin Magnussen, Haas +0.816

  7. Esteban Ocon, Alpine +0.911

  8. Alexander Albon, Williams +0.927

  9. Daniel Ricciardo, RB +0.936

  10. Valtteri Bottas, Sauber +1.228

  11. Zhou Guanyu, Sauber +1.324

  12. Yuki Tsunoda, RB +1.704

  13. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari +1.788

  14. Carlos Sainz, Ferrari +1.982

  15. Logan Sargeant, Williams +1.984

  16. Lando Norris, McLaren +2.328

  17. George Russell, Mercedes +2.504

  18. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes +2.537

  19. Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin +2.634

  20. Pierre Gasly, Alpine +2.974

07:32 AM BST

Good morning

Welcome to our coverage of the sprint qualifying for this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit. After running every year from 2004 to 2019, there was a Coronavirus-induced hiatus which means that this is the first edition of the race since that year.

Is returning to China a good thing? The jury is out as they say. It’s not a terrible track though perhaps not one many drivers favour with some strange corners. Does it produce good racing? Well, sometimes it does but like most tracks that is dependent on the competitive order and factors during the race.

This weekend is also the first sprint race weekend of the year, though with yet another slight rejig from what happened in 2023. Instead of having Saturday locked out for sprint qualifying and then the sprint race, we have a sequential order of sessions in order of importance, roughly speaking. So far we had FP1 on Friday morning – the only practice session of the weekend – with qualifying for the sprint race coming up.

After that it is the actual sprint race early on Saturday with qualifying for the main grand prix several hours later on Saturday. On Sunday it is the race. In some ways this puts more emphasis on the actual race and I think it’s good that main qualifying isn’t shunted to late on Friday.

Anyway, what happened in FP1? Here’s Philip Duncan of PA Sport’s recap:

Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll was the surprise name at the top of the leaderboard in the sole practice session for this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, which was disrupted by a fire at the side of the track.

Stroll finished 0.327 seconds clear of McLaren driver Oscar Piastri at the Shanghai International Circuit, with championship leader Max Verstappen third.

George Russell and Lewis Hamilton finished 17th and 18th, respectively, although the Mercedes pair did not set a competitive lap on the speediest soft tyre compound.

With qualifying for tomorrow’s 19-lap sprint race due to take place at 15:30 local time (08:30 BST) on Friday, the one-hour running here represented the only opportunity for the teams to trial different setups.

However, practice was suspended with just 15 minutes on the clock after a patch of grass at turn seven caught fire.

A number of drivers reported seeing smoke before a marshal extinguished the flames. It is unknown at this stage what caused the unusual incident on Formula One’s return to China after a five-year break.

Following a short red-flag period, the running resumed, with Hamilton forced into an impromptu visit to the pits after complaining that he had been pushed off the track by compatriot Lando Norris.

Neither Mercedes driver posted a quick lap with Russell and Hamilton, both electing to use the most complex tyre compound, 2.5 seconds off the pace. Norris only finished 16th, but the McLaren driver had been on course to set the fastest time before aborting his lap in the closing minutes.

Sprint qualifying starts in a little under an hour and we will be here for all of the updates.