Max Verstappen takes pole for Belgian GP; George Russell qualifies second for Williams

F1 Spa pole Verstappen
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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Max Verstappen produced a brilliant last lap in the rain to take F1 pole position Saturday for the Belgian Grand Prix and deny George Russell a stunning first career pole in Formula One.

World champion Lewis Hamilton placed third for Mercedes.

Hamilton had the leading time with drivers on their final runs. But Russell, driving a slower Williams, beat Hamilton’s leading mark.

Verstappen found extra pace to cross the line 0.321 seconds ahead of Russell and 0.334 clear of Hamilton.

Verstappen leads Hamilton 6-3 in pole positions this season and is in a good position to cut into Hamilton’s eight-point lead in the championship.

“That is simply lovely. Great start after the (midseason) break,” Verstappen said. “It’s a great track to drive but very challenging in the wet.”

Verstappen’s ninth career pole was one of the toughest.

“All the qualifying was really tricky,” the Dutchman said. “There were problems with visibility.”

Russell, who has been touted as a possible Mercedes driver next year if the team does not renew Valtteri Bottas’ contract, showed his talent with a fantastic lap.

“Absolutely buzzing,” said Russell, who also qualified second last year in Bahrain but while driving a Mercedes in place of an ailing Hamilton. “It’s been mega today. Max just pipped me.”

The 23-year-old British driver showed great maturity and racing nous.

“Conditions were changing every single lap. It was incredibly difficult out there,” he said. “It was about pushing right to the limit but not pushing over. It was definitely a very good lap.”

Hamilton missed out on a record-extending 102nd pole as he aims for a record-extending 100th F1 win.

“It’s been a very difficult day for everyone,” Hamilton said. “Well done to Max. Also, a great job by George.”

The seven-time F1 champion again was asked his opinion on who could drive alongside him next year at Mercedes.

“George has been doing a great job all year. He’s got pressure on him just as Valtteri has,” Hamilton said. “It’s great to see him (Russell) delivering.”

Bottas qualified eighth but starts a lowly 13th because of a five-place grid penalty for causing a crash at the Hungarian GP.

British driver Lando Norris had looked good, topping the first two sections of qualifying, but he crashed heavily early into Q3. The McLaren driver later was cleared to race Sunday.

“Lando was looking incredibly quick; he had some great pace today,” Hamilton said. “I hope he gets back on the road tomorrow.”

His crash delayed the end of qualifying for about 45 minutes.

When it resumed, there were 9 minutes left.

“There’s still a lot of spray,” Hamilton said as he went out.

The start of qualifying was delayed by 12 minutes after pouring rain had drenched the 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) Spa-Francorchamps circuit for a couple of hours.

The track was still very wet, and Williams driver Nicholas Latifi soon went off and into some grass. Hamilton also had a brief wobble on track in Q1 – the first part of qualifying – when he momentarily lost the rear of his car and slid to the left.

Norris topped Q1 ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton, with Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikonnen, the 2007 F1 champion, among the five drivers eliminated.

Norris led again in Q2, this time from Hamilton and Bottas. Both Ferraris were eliminated on a disappointing afternoon for Charles Leclerc and his teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

The umbrellas came back out again as heavy rain returned for Q3, the final part of qualifying.

“I think they should red flag (halt the session), too much water,” Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel said on team radio.

Norris expressed concern, too, and moments later he was spinning off track into a tire wall at the notorious Eau Rouge section of the track. Both ends of the McLaren were mangled and the red flag came out with nine minutes left in the session.

In a show of solidarity, Vettel stopped alongside Norris’ car and raised a thumb to check if he was fine. Norris, who had the fastest time in Q3 before he spun, clutched his arm as he walked out but otherwise seemed unharmed.

Moments later, Norris lost control and spun several times, prompting a red flag as the wreck of his battered McLaren was lifted off track by a crane.

“Yeah, well. What did I say? What did I say? Red flag!” an angry Vettel shouted, using an expletive to underline his frustration that the session was allowed to continue. “(It’s) unnecessary.”

Earlier Saturday, Verstappen led the third and final practice ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez, who signed a new one-year deal for next season, and Hamilton as rain fell persistently.

Verstappen topped the second practice on Friday.

Hamilton is chasing a fifth win at the Belgian GP.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”