McLaren driver Lando Norris of Britain steers his car during...

McLaren driver Lando Norris of Britain steers his car during the sprint qualifying session for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Friday, April 19, 2024. Credit: AP/Andy Wong

SHANGHAI — The Chinese Grand Prix could deliver some much-needed drama to Formula 1, and Red Bull's Max Verstappen can't be penciled in as the almost-certain winner on Sunday.

It’s also the season’s first GP with a sprint race, which means Friday’s practice session was the only one of the weekend. Lando Norris of McLaren went on to secure the pole for Saturday’s sprint race, running in a rainy qualifying session with drivers struggling to control their cars.

That included Verstappen.

“It was incredibly slippery out there and I struggled a lot to get the temperature in the tires, that’s why it was very difficult to keep the car on track,” the three-time world champion said. “The car never really switched on for me and it was like driving on ice, which is why I think we deserved where we finished in sprint.”

Verstappen has won 22 of the last 26 GPs and three of the first four this season. Only brake failure in Australia kept him from possibly sweeping the first four races. The fifth race might prove a challenge even for Verstappen.

“It's got the probability of throwing up quite a few variables and, perhaps, some unexpected results," Red Bull principal Christian Horner said Friday. ”I think it's going to be all action."

Here's why.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands goes off...

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands goes off the circuit into the gravel during the sprint qualifying session for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Friday, April 19, 2024. Credit: AP/Andy Wong

The track is a slight unknown. This is the first F1 race in China in five years, scratched from the calendar by the COVID-19 pandemic. The last was won in 2019 by Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton.

But the biggest unknown is the state of the racing surface, which has had a thin “seal coating” applied — described as liquid asphalt. Drivers have repeatedly said it looks like it's been painted. And tire supplier Pirelli said it wasn't fully aware of the changes heading into the race.

Though hard to draw any firm conclusion, Friday's practice kicked up some unusual names at the top.

Lance Stroll of Aston Martin had the quickest time (1 minute, 36.302 seconds), followed by Oscar Piastri of McClaren. Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez were Nos. 3-4 followed by two Haas drivers — Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands steers his...

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands steers his car back onto the circuit during the sprint qualifying session for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, Shanghai, China, Friday, April 19, 2024. Credit: AP/Andy Wong

China’s first F1 driver Zhou Guanyu was 11th in practice in a Sauber.

Charles Leclerc hinted on Thursday about Ferrari closing the gap on Red Bull. They didn't in Friday’s practice. Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz were 13th and 14th.

“Everything we expected in terms of uncertainty is happening and hopefully this will mean that we have an entertaining event here in China with some action and some opportunities,” McLaren team principal Andrea Stella said.

He said there was reduced tire grip in the practice session, and tires showed heavy wear from the unfamiliar surface.

Drivers spoke two weeks ago at the Japanese GP about their disquiet over the sprint in China. The track is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of central Shanghai, visible on the distant horizon through a hazy smog on Friday.

Horner accepted the concern but noted the Shanghai circuit is a known quantity, hosting races since 2004.

“We have a lot of historic data from this circuit," he said. “It’s not like turning up at a brand new venue and having to learn all over again.”

SPRINT QUALIFYING

Norris’ qualifying lap in the third sprint session was 1 minute, 57.940 seconds. The times in the rain on Friday were about 20 seconds slower than when qualifying began under dry conditions.

Norris will start from the pole with Hamilton alongside.

Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin will start on the second row with Verstappen. Row 3 has Sainz and Perez.

Asked what the race conditions would be on Saturday, Norris replied: “No clue.”

“It was getting wetter and wetter,” Norris said. “I was aquaplaning quite a bit.”

The F1 sprints are about one-third the length of the regular GP. The top eight drivers earn points — eight for first place, seven for second, six for third, and so on.

Qualifying was slowed by off-and-on rain that got more persistent as the session went on. Leclerc went off and hit a retaining wall and appeared to damage a front wing during one of his laps.

Many of the cars struggled for grip including Verstappen, who went off the track on one of his laps.

The sprint will be followed later Saturday with qualifying for Sunday’s race.

DRIVERS' SHUFFLE

Horner was asked Friday if Red Bull was close to confirming its driver lineup for next season. Verstappen, of course, is on a long-term contract. The question is over Perez, whose contract expires after this season.

Reports persist that Ferrari's Sainz is a possibility. His seat at Ferrari will be taken next year by Hamilton who is leaving Merdeces. Sainz is also reportedly in talks with Audi, which will take over Sauber for the 2026 season,

“We’re in a situation where we’re very happy with our two drivers,” Horner said. "We don't need to make a final decision about the lineup until pretty much later in the year.”

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