Lando Norris mastered a rain-hit qualifying to secure pole position for Saturday’s sprint race at the Chinese Grand Prix.

In soaking conditions at the Shanghai International Circuit, Norris finished 1.2 seconds clear of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in an all-British front row for Saturday’s 19-lap dash.

Hamilton looked to have taken top spot after Norris’ best lap was deleted by the stewards only for it then to be reinstated.

“Simply beautiful,” said Norris after he was informed of his pole. Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso qualified third, one place ahead of triple world champion Max Verstappen, who ran off the road on numerous occasions.

Rain threatened throughout qualifying and finally arrived for the decisive Q3 session.

Charles Leclerc was the first to fall foul of the torrid conditions when he lost control of his Ferrari. The Monegasque pirouetted through the gravel before hitting the wall at Turn 2 and braking the front wing on his Ferrari.

Verstappen also made an error, falling off the road in his first attempt, before then running through the sandtrap at the final corner. The driver, who has dominated Formula One, had to settle for fourth.

Hamilton has had a season to forget – statistically, at least, the worst of his career so far. But for a moment here, he topped the time charts only to see Norris edge him out with an impressive lap.

Norris’ time was initially chalked off for exceeding track limits but after the British driver, 23, complained he “didn’t go off anywhere”, the stewards u-turned on their decision.

“It was tricky,” 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.

“I got a good final lap in for pole so I am happy, sad it is not real qualifying, but it is good enough. It gets your heart going and it is what we wanted.”

Mercedes’ wretched run looked set to continue after George Russell was eliminated in 11th but when the rain arrived, Hamilton looked at home to secure his spot on the front row.

Elsewhere, Carlos Sainz finished fifth for Ferrari ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez with Leclerc seventh.

F1 is back in China following a five-year absence and home favourite Zhou Guanyu sent the home crowd happy after he qualified 10th.

Earlier, the start of Q2 was delayed by several minutes following a second bizarre track fire of the day.

Practice was red-flagged when a patch of grass next to Turn 7 caught fire. And there was a similar incident in qualifying, this time at Turn 5.

Although both blazes were quickly extinguished, the incidents – which the FIA believe were caused by sparks flying off the drivers’ cars – will be a concern for the sport’s bosses.

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

Daniel Ricciardo said he has been assured by Red Bull that he is not set to lose his seat – but admitted if he continues to get his “arse whooped” he does not deserve to be in Formula One.

Following a troubled start to his first full season back on the grid, Ricciardo, 34, arrives for this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix as a driver under pressure.

Ricciardo was handed a reprieve by Red Bull’s junior outfit, RB, midway through last season, after he was dumped by McLaren.

But he has failed to get up to speed in 2024, out-qualified by team-mate Yuki Tsunoda at every event, and without a point to his name.

He also crashed out on the first lap in Japan a fortnight ago, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner – integral in bringing him back into the fold – said here in Shanghai that Ricciardo has “under-performed” so far this season.

It has even been suggested that a failure to turn his troubling form around could see Ricciardo replaced by Red Bull reserve driver Liam Lawson as early as the next race in Miami.

But in an interview with the PA news agency, Ricciardo said: “Everybody in the team is shutting that down. The black and white, is that I have a contract.

“However, I have to earn my spot. I don’t want these results to continue for a year, and for me to say: ‘well I should be here because it is on paper’. I am not going to be happy with that. At the end of the day, if I am getting my arse whooped I don’t deserve to be here.

“I want to get back to a place where I know I can be, and I feel confident I can get there. I am aware I have to get the results. But from my side, I am not a rookie trying to prove something or to establish myself. I do have a history in this sport. I do have a track record that says I can win.

“But if we get to December and I have not been able to extract that then maybe I will be like, ‘fine I am done with this’ or ‘I am not good enough’, but I certainly don’t feel like that in my heart.”

Ricciardo’s stock fell after two poor years with McLaren, and his career looked over when his contract was cancelled at the end of 2022. But an upbeat Ricciardo believes his troubled spell with the British team has allowed him to remain positive amid his current disappointing run.

“I went through this at McLaren and I bought into the noise because I ended up losing the belief,” he said. “I would question myself: ‘F***, maybe I have lost that edge? Maybe I can’t do it anymore?’

“But now I sit here in a different place because I do feel rejuvenated. That is why it is frustrating because in my head it makes no sense.

“If I do well here and in Miami, all of a sudden it is forgotten about. I don’t get caught up in it, but deep down, I know I have to do better.”

Ricciardo announced at his comeback race in Hungary last year that his dream is to return to Red Bull where he raced to seven of his eight career wins between 2014 and 2018.

But recent results have seen him looking over his shoulder, rather than as a potential replacement for Sergio Perez, who is out of contract at the end of the year, or even Max Verstappen, whose future with the all-conquering, but scandal-hit team, remains uncertain.

“Is it still a goal (to re-join Red Bull)? said Ricciardo. “Of course. But where I sit right now, I don’t want to talk about it because I know I have to do better.

“I am also aware that if I start talking about that, all the responses, will be like, ‘mate, focus on where you are’, which is the truth.

“And look, can anything happen in F1? Yes. But my prediction is that Max stays (at Red Bull).”

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 campaign.

Hamilton has failed to finish in the top six so far, and crossed the line a distant ninth at the last round in Japan a fortnight ago.

Hamilton, who is moving to Ferrari next year, was asked if Mercedes’ early-season troubles vindicated his decision to quit the team, which carried him to six of his record-equalling seven world championships.

“I don’t feel like I need my decision vindicating,” he said. “I know what is right for me, and that hasn’t changed from the moment I made the decision.

“There’s not been a moment that I’ve questioned it, and I’m not swayed by other people’s comments.

“Even today, there’s people continuing to talk s***, and that will continue on for the rest of the year.

“I’ll have to just do what I did the previous time (when he moved to Mercedes from McLaren). Only I can know what’s right for me, and this (joining Ferrari) will be an exciting time for me.”

Hamilton, who was speaking ahead of this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix – the first staged here since 2019 – was asked what he meant by “people taking s***”.

“Just read what’s out there,” he replied.

Hamilton will be 40 when he makes his debut for Ferrari in Australia next March.

Fernando Alonso announced last week that he will remain in the sport beyond his 45th birthday after agreeing a contract extension with Aston Martin. The Spaniard, 43 in July, will become the oldest driver of the modern era.

And Hamilton added: “I’m going to be racing for quite some time still, right into my 40s, so it’s definitely good Fernando is still around and keeps going on for a bit longer.

“I never thought I’d be racing into my 40s. I’m pretty sure I said I wouldn’t. But life is such a crazy trick. I don’t feel like I’m nearing 40. I feel like I’m pretty young.

“It’s a real positive that Fernando is staying because it means I’m not the oldest driver here.

“But also Fernando is one of the best drivers we’ve had in the sport so for him to continue to be here and continue to have the output that he’s had just shows what’s possible.”

Hamilton, who has won a record six times in China, will be back on track on Friday in qualifying for the first sprint round of the season.

In a rejig of the format this year, the grid for Sunday’s main event will now be determined after the 19-lap race which gets under way at 11:00am (4am BST) on Saturday.

Lewis Hamilton will make his Ferrari debut in Australia after Formula One’s bosses announced next season’s record-equalling 24-round calendar.

Hamilton, 39, is set to realise a childhood dream when he swaps Mercedes for Ferrari in 2025, with the seven-time world champion’s opening race to take place in Melbourne on March 16.

It will mark the first time since 2019 that the F1 season has kicked off at Albert Park after the following year’s scheduled opener was cancelled at the last minute amid the outbreak of coronavirus.

The 2025 campaign is due to end in Abu Dhabi on December 7, with the British Grand Prix – starting the first of its new 10-year contract extension at Silverstone – on July 6.

Triple world champion Max Verstappen has been vocal in his criticism at the ever-expanding length of the F1 schedule.

But for next season, at least, there will be no new additions to the calendar.

The campaign has started in Bahrain for the past four seasons, but with Ramadan staged throughout March in 2025, the rounds in the Gulf kingdom, and in Saudi Arabia, will be pushed back to April.

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said: “2025 will be a special year as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Formula One World Championship, and it’s that legacy and experience that allows us to deliver such a strong calendar.

“Once again, we’ll visit 24 incredible venues around the world, delivering top-class racing, hospitality, and entertainment, which will be enjoyed by millions of fans worldwide.

“I would also like to pay tribute to our F1 teams and drivers, the heroes of our sport, and our fans around the world for continuing to follow Formula One with such incredible enthusiasm.”

After four rounds of the current season, Verstappen holds a 13-point championship lead in his bid to secure four consecutive world titles. The next race takes place in Shanghai a week on Sunday.

Full 2025 F1 calendar

March 16 – Australian Grand Prix (Melbourne)
March 23 – Chinese Grand Prix (Shanghai)
April 6 – Japanese Grand Prix (Suzuka)
April 13 – Bahrain Grand Prix (Sakhir)
April 20 – Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (Jeddah)
May 4 – Miami Grand Prix (Miami)
May 18 – Emilia Romagna Grand Prix (Imola)
May 25 – Monaco Grand Prix (Monte Carlo)
June 1 – Spanish Grand Prix (Barcelona)
June 15 – Canadian Grand Prix (Montreal)
June 29 – Austrian Grand Prix (Spielberg)
July 6 – British Grand Prix (Silverstone)
July 27 – Belgian Grand Prix (Spa-Francorchamps)
August 3 – Hungarian Grand Prix (Hungaroring)
August 31 – Dutch Grand Prix (Zandvoort)
September 7 – Italian Grand Prix (Monza)
September 21 – Azerbaijan Grand Prix (Baku)
October 5 – Singapore Grand Prix (Marina Bay)
October 19 – United States Grand Prix (Austin)
October 26 – Mexico City Grand Prix (Mexico City)
November 9 – Brazilian Grand Prix (Interlagos)
November 22 – Las Vegas Grand Prix (Las Vegas)
November 30 – Qatar Grand Prix (Lusail)
December 7 – Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Yas Marina)

Fernando Alonso will remain in Formula One beyond his 45th birthday after agreeing a new multi-season deal with Aston Martin.

Double world champion Alonso, who will be 43 in July, had been linked with Mercedes and Red Bull – as replacements for Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen respectively.

But Aston Martin announced on Thursday that Alonso, whose current deal had been due to expire at the end of the year, has agreed new terms to remain with them until at least the end of 2026.

Both Mercedes, searching for a replacement for the Ferrari-bound Hamilton, and Red Bull – with Verstappen said to be unsettled at the scandal-hit Red Bull team – had been tracking Alonso’s next move.

And Alonso admitted: “I did speak with other people. It is normal when you enter negotiations that you need to balance the market and listen to everybody else.

“I will not be specific as to which team I spoke with because this is not important. When teams are searching for a driver, they touch base with everyone just to know their position. They always want to know everything and for me it was the same.

“Maybe more time was needed (by them), while with Aston Martin there was a clear desire to work together so that is why it was very easy to stay. I felt the most wanted by them. All the other conversations were just light, and never came to any conclusions.

“I will not wait to see if there is something happening and I can jump in. I will dictate my destiny, whether that is for good or for bad.”

Alonso will this season become the first driver to take part in 400 grands prix, and his new deal is set to make him comfortably the oldest F1 driver of the modern era.

Michael Schumacher was 43 when he retired for a second time in 2012, while Kimi Raikkonen was a year younger when he walked away from the sport in 2021.

“I love driving too much that I cannot stop at the moment,” added Alonso. “I breathe Formula One, I live Formula One, and I train and eat to drive Formula One cars.

“The moment hasn’t arrived that I need to change my lifestyle. I will not be happy sitting at home and watching Formula One races because I still feel I should be there.

“If one day I feel I am not motivated, or I am not in good shape, or I am not fast and sharp, I will be the first one to raise my hand and we will find a solution with Aston Martin.

“But I don’t see that coming for the next few years. Japan (on Sunday) was one of my best races ever, and that happened five days ago. Lewis will also be 40 in January, so at least I will not be the only one next year who is over 40.”

Alonso took the last of his two world titles in 2006, and has not won a race in more than a decade.

But the former Ferrari and McLaren man is still considered as one of the brightest stars of the F1 field.

Last year, in his first season at Aston Martin, he helped to transform the British team from also-rans to frontrunners. He took eight podiums and finished fourth in the championship.

Although Aston Martin have not been able to maintain that form, there is hope that the next major regulation change in 2026, which will see them partner with Honda – the Japanese manufacturer that has powered Red Bull to its recent successes – will allow Alonso to compete at the sharp end of the grid once more.

Alonso continued: “We have achieved so many highs here in such a short space of time. It is probably unprecedented in Formula One.

“This is only the beginning of the journey, so it could not be the end for me and Aston Martin.”

Fernando Alonso will remain with Aston Martin beyond this season after signing a new ‘multi-year’ deal with the British-based Formula One team.

Double world champion Alonso, who will be 43 in July, had been linked with Mercedes and Red Bull – as possible replacements for Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen respectively.

But Aston Martin announced on Thursday that Alonso, whose current deal had been due to expire at the end of the year, has agreed a contract extension.

“I am here to stay,” said Alonso via an Aston Martin press release. The team did not mention the length of the new deal.

Team principal Mike Krack said: “Securing Fernando’s long-term future with Aston Martin is fantastic news.

“We have built a strong working relationship over the last 18 months and we share the same determination to see this project succeed.

“We have been in constant dialogue over the last few months and Fernando has been true to his word: when he decided he wanted to continue racing, he talked to us first. Fernando has shown he believes in us, and we believe in him.

“Fernando is hungry for success, driving better than ever, is fitter than ever, and is completely dedicated to making Aston Martin a competitive force.

“This multi-year agreement with Fernando takes us into 2026 when we begin our works power unit partnership with Honda. We look forward to creating more incredible memories and achieving further success together.”

Alonso, who has won 32 races, will this season become the first driver to take part in 400 grands prix, and his latest deal will take him beyond his 45th birthday.

Both Mercedes, searching for a replacement for the Ferrari-bound Hamilton, and Red Bull – with Verstappen said to be unsettled at the scandal-hit Red Bull team – had been tracking Alonso’s next move.

But the Spaniard will enter into at least a third season with Aston Martin, with ambitious owner Lawrence Stroll determined to turn the Silverstone-based team into championship contenders.

Alonso took the last of his two world titles in 2006, and has not won a race in more than a decade.

But he is still considered as one of the stars of the F1 field, and last year helped to transform Aston Martin from also-rans to frontrunners. He took eight podiums and finished fourth in the championship.

After the opening four rounds of the new campaign, Alonso is eighth in the standings.

Carlos Sainz is refusing to throw in the towel at such an early stage of the Formula One season – insisting he has “nothing to lose” in his last year at Ferrari.

After Max Verstappen led home a dominant Red Bull one-two in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said the Dutchman was uncatchable this year.

Having clinched the previous three drivers’ titles, Verstappen is once again the overwhelming favourite to claim the crown.

He has won three of the opening four races, with a brake failure causing him to retire early on at the Australian Grand Prix last month – where Sainz went on to take the chequered flag.

The Spaniard was back in action after missing the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix with appendicitis and, having finished third behind the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Sergio Perez at Suzuka, he was not ready to cede the fight.

In what will be the longest season in F1 history – there are still 20 races left with four having been run – Sainz is hopeful Ferrari can improve across the course of the year, although he also doubted if that would be enough to haul in Verstappen.

“I think they are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that makes us fight them more consistently,” he said.

“By that time, maybe it’s a bit too late with the advantage that they might have on the championship. In the meantime, we need more Australias! Which I don’t see Red Bull, as a team, making these mistakes very often, no.

“It is a shame, because also I missed a race, which for both the team and me, it could be costly in the championship. We’re competing in one race less, but at the same time, we’re going to give it our best shot.

“It’s my last year in Ferrari also, so yeah, nothing to lose and we will try everything to make it back.”

Sainz has lost his seat to Lewis Hamilton from next year, the seven-time world champion moving across to partner Charles Leclerc from 2025 onwards.

Hamilton will be hoping to return to a competitive car, with Mercedes struggling for another season this time around.

The 39-year-old has amassed just 10 points so far – his worst-ever tally after the opening four races of a season.

Wolff labelled Hamilton’s first run on the hard tyres in Japan as “atrocious” and the Brit himself was bullish when asked if he could have improved on his ninth-placed finish.

“I don’t know what the different strategy would have been, whether if we stayed on the mediums to start with, but we still had two really terrible hard tyres to run through,” he said.

“It was a real challenge, I think I picked up a bit of damage at the beginning with Charles (Leclerc) when he came around the outside and I had huge understeer for the first stint.

“I couldn’t turn the car through any of the corners. That’s why I let (team-mate) George (Russell) through.

“The hard tyre was pretty bad, as I said, the medium tyre was much better. So for sure, in hindsight it looks like we should have had two (sets of) medium tyres but in general the car, it was just pretty bad.”

A return to China is next on the calendar, with the Shanghai International Circuit hosting its first grand prix since 2019 and with the first sprint race of the season also taking place.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff insists Max Verstappen’s fourth consecutive title is already a foregone conclusion after the Red Bull driver cruised to victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Verstappen returned to winning ways in dominant fashion as the reigning drivers’ champion triumphed at Suzuka.

Having retired last time out in Australia, it was normal service resumed for the Dutchman as he led home a Red Bull one-two with Sergio Perez finishing second.

Verstappen twice led into the first corner off the line after the race was restarted following a first-lap incident which saw both Daniel Ricciardo and Alex Albon crash out after making contact.

From there, Verstappen controlled the pace and the result never looked in doubt, as he took the chequered flag and the fastest lap to open up a 13-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship.

His brake failure in Melbourne aside, Verstappen has looked in imperious form in the opening four rounds of 2024.

In what is Formula One’s longest-ever season there are still 20 races remaining, but Wolff was in no doubt that he feels Verstappen will once again be untouchable.

“No one is going to catch Max this year,” he said.

“His driving and the car are just spectacular. You can see the way he manages the tyres and basically this season now is best of the rest.

“If I was to look from a pure sporting point of view it is P1 what matters, not P2, P3 or P4 but this is the reality that we are facing at the moment.

“We’re trying to do the best out of this new reality and that is to beat our competitors whilst acknowledging that somebody is just doing a better job and setting the benchmark that we eventually need to set ourselves again.”

Wolff’s prediction of another year of Red Bull dominance was brushed aside by opposing team principal Christian Horner.

Horner and Wolff have history as rivals and have never been shy of mixing words.

“It’s very early to write off the year,” Horner said.

“There’s still 20 races to go. I’ve learned not to listen too much to what Toto says over the years.

“It was great to bounce back after the DNF in Australia, after such a great start to the season, it was important to bounce back quickly.

“I think that we’ve done that emphatically here at Suzuka this weekend. It’s a great performance.”

Verstappen, meanwhile, took the statement in a lighter mood: “Lately Toto’s been really nice! Saying a lot of nice things about me.”

Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz took the last step on the podium with a strong strategy from Ferrari enough for him to leapfrog Lando Norris, with McLaren misjudging a call to pit the Briton early for his final stop.

A strong showing from Ferrari saw the sister car of Charles Leclerc come home fourth ahead of Norris, Fernando Alonso hung on to take sixth for Aston Martin with a late push from George Russell seeing him pass the second McLaren of Oscar Piastri on the closing lap to secure seventh.

Lewis Hamilton had said after qualifying that his Mercedes felt better than it had in the last three years but he struggled for genuine pace and dropped back through the field during his first stint, eventually having to settle for ninth as home favourite Yuki Tsunoda became the first Japanese driver to score points at Suzuka in 12 years by coming 10th for RB.

Max Verstappen returned to winning ways in dominant fashion as the world champion cruised to victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Having retired last time out in Australia, it was normal service resumed for the Dutchman at Suzuka where he led home a Red Bull one-two as Sergio Perez finished second.

Verstappen twice led into the first corner off the line after the race was restarted following a first-lap incident.

From there he controlled the pace of the race and the result never looked in doubt, with Verstappen taking the chequered flag and the fastest lap to open up a 13-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship as he aims for a fourth successive title.

Perez did well to overcome a minor threat from Ferrari as Carlos Sainz took the last step on the podium with a strong strategy enough for him leapfrog Lando Norris, with McLaren misjudging a call to pit the Briton early for his final stop.

A strong showing from Ferrari saw the sister car of Charles Leclerc come home fourth ahead of Norris, while the fight for the minor points places proved to be the most exciting battle of the afternoon.

Fernando Alonso hung on to take sixth for Aston Martin with a late push from George Russell seeing him pass the second McLaren of Oscar Piastri on the closing lap to secure seventh.

Lewis Hamilton had said after qualifying that his Mercedes felt better than it had in the last three years but he struggled for genuine pace and had to settle for ninth as home favourite Yuki Tsunoda took the final point, coming in 10th for RB.

Lando Norris has dismissed suggestions from dominant Red Bull duo Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez that they could struggle for pace in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Verstappen took pole position to continue his run of locking out the first spot on the grid so far this season, while Perez was just 0.066 seconds slower to secure his place on the front row.

Norris emerged from a pack of cars all running very similar times to take the place as best of the rest for McLaren on another Saturday where it was Red Bull who shone.

Despite a 27th qualifying one-two for the Red Bull team, both drivers were quick to point out they are not as happy with their longer race pace.

Having run with their race set-up in the final practice session ahead of qualifying, Verstappen complained: “So far, I haven’t been happy with my long runs. The pace wasn’t what I would have liked, so there’s a bit of a question mark going into tomorrow.

“Our race pace is still not too bad, but it’s not how I have been feeling in some of the races this year, last year, as comfortable, let’s say it like that.”

Perez, meanwhile, echoed the views of his team-mate: “Let’s see what we are able to do tomorrow,” he said.

“I don’t think we are looking great at the moment in our long run pace, but we’ve done some changes and hopefully that will translate into our race pace.”

However, Norris did not seem to buy the suggestions that Red Bull may have any sort of Sunday struggles.

“Obviously last year I was side by side with Max into turn one. So hopefully trying to redo that,” he said of his plans for the race.

“But it’s tricky. They’re quick. They complained about their race pace, but I don’t think they’ve had a bad race in the last four or five years, so I think they’re going to be good tomorrow.

“Of course we’ve got a lot of pressure from behind so we have to keep an eye on the mirrors. But at the same time I want to go forward and I think we have pace to stay where we are, so that’s my goal.

“That will be our target for tomorrow. But I think realistically, we’re still too far away to challenge them. They’re too quick for us. Yes, we are quicker in qualifying, but in the race, normally, they always pull away a bit more.

“So, I think we’ll be realistic. I’m always realistic when I say it. So I think our competition is with the guys behind and at the same time, I’ll do my best to push forward.”

Carlos Sainz won in Australia last time out and will start Sunday’s race fourth for Ferrari, with the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso fifth.

Oscar Piastri was sixth-fastest in the second McLaren, while Lewis Hamilton and George Russell are down in seventh and ninth respectively – with Mercedes later fined 5,000 euros for an unsafe pit-lane release of Russell.

Charles Leclerc is sandwiched between the pair, with home favourite Yuki Tsunoda rounding out the top 10.

Tsunoda scraped into the final session, eliminating RB team-mate Daniel Ricciardo at the end of Q2 to the roar of the Suzuka crowd.

Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Alex Albon and Esteban Ocon also failed to make it through and will start 12-15th, respectively.

Lance Stroll, Pierre Gasly, Kevin Magnussen, Logan Sargeant and Zhou Guanyu were knocked out in Q1.

Lewis Hamilton may have only managed to qualify seventh for the Japanese Grand Prix but he insists his Mercedes has not felt better in three years.

The seven-time world champion will start from the fourth row at Suzuka, with team-mate George Russell in ninth.

While from the outside that would suggest Mercedes once again struggled with an underperforming car – like much of the past two years – Hamilton was in good spirits following Saturday’s qualifying.

Having lamented the gap to pole-sitter Max Verstappen over the team radio during the session, he had a more positive outlook in the aftermath.

“The car has been much nicer to drive this weekend… this is the nicest it has felt in three years,” he said.

“I think we did a really good job over the last week, just the analysis we’ve done at the factory to get the car into a sweet spot.

“This weekend it’s much more in the sweet spot and so I hope that continues in the following races. Then we’ve just got to add performance.

“I think we’ve got the car into a much nicer working window and so it’s been really enjoyable driving, it’s just the guys are just a little bit faster.”

Hamilton has amassed just eight points from the opening three races of the 2024 campaign and retired last time out in Australia.

The early signs are Mercedes face another year of chasing the fastest cars rather than challenging for victories – but the Briont, who will race for Ferrari from next year – feels things are starting to look up.

Asked if he believes Mercedes are now heading in the right direction, Hamilton replied: “I personally believe so.

“We were a second or just over a second off last year to the Red Bull and seven tenths is now better,” he added.

“I think what it’s giving us is I know exactly where the car is not strong enough, I can feel it in the car, and I know now to be tell them to ‘push in this particular area’. But I’m hoping the race will be stronger tomorrow.”

Mercedes were hit with a Euros5,000 (£4,290) fine for an unsafe pit lane release of Russell at the start of qualifying.

Russell will start the race from his lowest grid slot this season but he believes it will be a close battle with the cars in and around him.

“I think it’s just so tight out there between ourselves McLaren, Ferrari and Aston Martin,” he said.

“If you nail your lap you are up at the front of that pack, and if you don’t you will be at the back of that pack, we knew that this circuit was going to be a slight challenge for us. We know our limitation in the high-speed corners.”

Max Verstappen stormed to pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix as his dominance in qualifying continued.

The world champion has locked out the first spot on the grid this season and there was no answer to his pace at Suzuka.

His time of one minute 28.197 beat Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez into second place by just 0.066 seconds, while McLaren’s Lando Norris was the best of the rest.

Verstappen’s run of pole positions now stretches back to the last race of last season and he is now toasting a third pole in Japan.

The Dutchman never looked like being beaten and was quickest across all three qualifying sessions – as well as Saturday morning’s final practice.

He is aiming to get back on track after retiring in Melbourne and the rest of the field will be concerned that he could drive off into the distance from the start.

“It was quite close at the end,” Verstappen said of his latest pole lap.

“Overall this track is sensitive with the tyres and when you want to go to the limit it doesn’t always work out but what is important is being on pole. Overall, a very good day, a good starting position tomorrow and of course tomorrow is what counts.

“It is great as a team to be P1 and P2, hopefully we can keep that going tomorrow.”

Carlos Sainz won in Australia last time out and will start Sunday’s race fourth for Ferrari, with the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso fifth.

Oscar Piastri was sixth-fastest in the second McLaren, with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell down in seventh and ninth, respectively.

Charles Leclerc is sandwiched between the pair, with home favourite Yuki Tsunoda rounding out the top 10.

Tsunoda scraped into the final session, eliminating RB team-mate Daniel Ricciardo at the end of Q2 to the roar of the Suzuka crowd.

Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Alex Albon and Esteban Ocon also failed to make it through and will start 12-15th, respectively.

Lance Stroll, Pierre Gasly, Kevin Magnussen, Logan Sargeant and Zhou Guanyu were knocked out in Q1.

Max Verstappen set the pace in final practice ahead of qualifying at the Japanese Grand Prix.

The reigning world champion retired last time out in Australia but he was once again top of the timesheets at Suzuka.

His time of one minute 29.563 was unmatched, with Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez getting closest to the championship leader but still having to settle for a gap of 0.269 seconds.

Mercedes lost both cars at the previous race but looked in good shape here as George Russell went third fastest with Lewis Hamilton next in line.

There was plenty of running in the hour-long session after both of Friday’s practices were affected – one by a red flag and the other by rain.

Fernando Alonso was fifth fastest with Lando Norris’ McLaren sixth and Australia’s race winner Carlos Sainz seventh for Ferrari.

His team-mate Charles Leclerc was down in 10th and was left fuming with his garage after the mistimed his final run on the track, cutting short his chances of improving.

Both Williams drivers were able to run after Logan Sargeant’s car was fixed following a big shunt on Friday – although the American was down in 19th place.

Toto Wolff made a U-turn on his decision not to attend the Japanese Grand Prix as it would have been the “wrong choice” given Mercedes recent troubles.

The Mercedes team boss was scheduled not to be at Suzuka this weekend and the PA news agency understands that was planned before the start of the new season and not as a result of the team’s poor performance at the Australian Grand Prix.

Neither Lewis Hamilton nor George Russell finished the race in Melbourne, with Russell’s fifth-placed finish in the season-opener in Bahrain the best result for the team so far this year.

Having dominated the sport between 2014 and 2021, Mercedes have struggled since new regulations arrived the following year and have won just one race in that time.

Wolff changed his mind on attending the race in Suzuka – where Russell and Hamilton finished fourth and fifth in first practice before a rain-affected second session – and explained the call on Friday afternoon.

“I had planned not to come to Japan, because there’s so much on back in Europe, things to do,” he said.

“But then I felt not coming to Japan was the wrong choice. I think it’s important to be with the race team…it does me good also, to be close to the action.

“We’re experimenting with a few things and then being part of the team really gives me energy and I hope the other way around, too. So that’s why I decided against staying in Europe.”

Speaking on Thursday, Hamilton was asked about the tough times of both drivers not crossing the finish line last time out.

“I think it’s all about perspective. I think for us of course we’ve not started the season where we wanted to be,” he said.

“We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve seen in the past – last year for example – how things can switch with certain teams.

“I think we’ve just got to learn as much as we can, take as much as we can from the data, remain positive, continue to work hard and I always say it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up.

“We will just continue to chase and fight and hope we can be fighting at the front at some stage.”

Wolff, too, was keen to be optimistic when asked about the struggles of the season so far.

“We are a sports team, we’ve won eight times in a row, and that hasn’t been done before. But you have periods where you struggle, like any other sports team, and you can’t win every time.

“That’s why this is a super challenge and it’s not a race, it’s not one single season, and then you come back out on top, but it’s the third one in a row.

“But I remain absolutely convinced that we will be looking back in a few years and saying that was so tough, but so important for the development of the team.”

Hamilton, who has won six of Mercedes’ seven consecutive drivers’ championships, is leaving to join Ferrari next season.

He has tipped Sebastian Vettel as an “amazing option” to take his seat at Mercedes after the four-time world champion revealed he has been considering returning to F1 after leaving in 2022.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Vettel admitted he has been talking to Wolff – who was full of praise for the former Red Bull and Ferrari man, before confirming he has whittled down the options for 2025 to two or three drivers.

“Sebastian is someone you can never discount,” he said.

“His track record is phenomenal, and sometimes maybe taking a break is also good to evaluate what’s important for you and re-find your motivation.

“We haven’t taken the decision yet and it is not something we plan to do in the next few weeks, the driver market is very dynamic and some of the really good guys are about so sign for the other teams.”

Second practice for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix proved to be a damp squib as McLaren’s Oscar Piastri set the fastest time on a weather-affected session.

Local favourite Yuki Tsunoda and his RB team-mate Daniel Ricciardo were the only drivers to set lap times early on in changeable conditions, but set their times on the intermediate tyre.

The hour-long session began in rain and, although it later stopped, the track was not deemed sufficiently dry enough for most teams to send out their cars.

Piastri was one of them and his time of one minute 34.725 seconds proved fast enough to top the timesheets, with the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari the only others to set representative times.

Earlier, Max Verstappen set the pace in first practice as Willams endured another Friday to forget.

Reigning champion Verstappen retired in Melbourne a fortnight ago but was back at it here, his time of one minute 20.056 seconds was enough to see him go quickest at Suzuka, with team-mate Sergio Perez his closest challenger 0.181 seconds back.

A red flag halfway through the session stopped running for 11 minutes as Logan Sargeant crashed off at turn two – further adding to the Williams woes.

Sargeant sat out the Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago as team-mate Alex Albon took his car after destroying his own in a practice crash and the team currently have no spare chassis.

Williams team principal James Vowles confirmed the car had suffered “extensive” damage and Sargeant was forced to sit out of second practice – although the lack of running meant there was little that would have been gained from taking part.

“It is pretty significant (damage). So the chassis is OK, fortunately, but I would say pretty much everything else isn’t – so the suspension around, the gearbox is cracked, big damage.

“At the top of the brow of the hill there, he struggled to see where his positioning was on track. So it fundamentally looks like he didn’t quite realise where he was with where the grass was on the outside and put a wheel on the grass.”

Albon went 12th fastest after the action restarted, while Verstappen assumed his usual position as the car to beat.

Carlos Sainz, who won in Australia last time out, was third-fastest for Ferrari ahead of the Mercedes duo of George Russell and Hamilton, while the second Ferrari of Leclerc was sixth.

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