Unfazed by fire in McLaren's facility, Norris edges Verstappen for pole at Spanish GP

MONTMELÓ, Spain (AP) — McLaren's Formula One team went from escaping from a fire in their hospitality suite to celebrating a rare pole position by Lando Norris at the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday.

Norris edged points leader Max Verstappen after the British driver pulled off a blistering final run during qualifying.

Norris' great run was made more impressive given the circumstances. Just hours before, McLaren had to evacuate its hospitality suite because of a fire shortly before the last practice. McLaren said one team member was taken to a local hospital “for precaution.” Two firefighters employed by the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya were also treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation before being released, track officials said.

“The best thing is that everyone is safe, everyone is doing well,” Norris said. “A bit of a scare for the whole team, just a bit of a more stressful day than I would have liked. I lost my shoes, that was as bad as it got for me.”

McLaren's hospitality facility, a multi-story temporary structure that provides meals for staff and guests, started billowing smoke shortly before the third practice on Saturday morning. Firefighters responded, and said the blaze started in the kitchen. Track officials said the cause was under investigation, but it was not caused by an electrical problem.

Norris said the team would be unable to use the facility on race day. In addition to those ruined shoes, Lando said the belongings he did retrieve reeked of smoke. While insisting he wasn't complaining, he said the incident has deprived him of the rest room he used to “chill out” and focus.

“Maybe tomorrow it will impact me a bit more if I can’t jut get that quiet time that I love, but it is not the end of the world," he said.

It sure didn't shake him during qualifying.

Just when Verstappen was seconds away from claiming another pole, Norris whipped around the 4.6-kilometer (2.8-mile) track to edge Verstappen by 0.02 seconds.

Norris earned his first career victory in May when he won in Miami. His only other pole was from Sochi, Russia, in 2021.

“It was pretty much a perfect lap, so I am super, super happy,” Norris said. “We have been close the past two months, ever since Miami. We probably missed out on pole because we didn’t do that perfect lap. We made some changes on the final lap and found the room to improve.”

Pole-sitters have won 24 of the 33 F1 races just north of Barcelona.

Lewis Hamilton will start third — his best grid position of the season — just ahead of Mercedes teammate George Russell. Ferrari pair Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will be next.

Verstappen, winner of the last two Spanish GPs, holds a 56-point lead over Leclerc in the drivers’ standings after winning six of the nine races this season.

“(The weekend) has been okay, but clearly not good enough,” Verstappen said. "On this kind of track I was hoping to be ahead. But the other teams are catching up and we need to do more.

"I always want to start first, it is easier to defend from there. It all depends on how good our start is going to be."

Norris will have the slight edge as he and Verstappen try to reach Turn 1 first on Sunday. If Norris can't beat Verstappen to that first turn, then his pole will have mattered very little.

“It is a long run down to Turn 1, but it is an opportunity for us to win a race,” Norris said.

Fernando Alonso, sporting royalty in Spain, was cut from the second qualifying session that leaves only the top 10 drivers in play after he posted the 11th best time.

It was also bad for RB and Williams after their cars failed to move past the first session of qualifying, which eliminates the five slowest cars.

Yuki Tsunoda and RB partner Daniel Ricciardo were 17th and 18th, while Williams pair Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant finished bottom of the time charts.


AP auto racing:

Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press