General view ahead of qualifying the third practice session at the Sochi Autodrom circuit, in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. The Russian Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
General view ahead of qualifying the third practice session at the Sochi Autodrom circuit, in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. The Russian Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Lando Norris took pole position for the first time in a rain-hit qualifying session for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday after timing his final fast lap to perfection on a drying track.

The McLaren driver set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 41.993 seconds in the dying seconds of the session after switching to slick tires as the racing line dried. He pushed Carlos Sainz of Ferrari into second place by half a second as George Russell took third for Williams, dropping Lewis Hamilton to fourth. Championship leader Max Verstappen has a penalty and starts at the back.

“It's my first pole position and hopefully the first of many,” said Norris, who fought to keep his car under control on dry tires in the still-tricky conditions.

“There were plenty of corners where I thought I might have gone in a bit hard here and it’s all going to go rather wrong, but it didn’t. So that’s just, I guess, the level you've got to be at to be in this position,” he said. “I’m happy I took those risks and made those decisions because they paid off the way they have. Many times during the lap, I thought it was all going to go quite badly wrong.”

Norris' McLaren teammate Daniel Ricciardo recorded an upset win at the last race in Italy after Hamilton and Verstappen crashed. Following that up with another McLaren win in Russia will be tricky, not least because the long straightaway in Sochi allows cars behind to draft off the leaders into the first corners.

“Probably the only place I wouldn't want to be pole is here with the straight down to turn one," Norris said.

Third is another impressive qualifying result in the rain for Russell, who was second in a wet session in Belgium last month — which turned into a podium when rain meant the truncated race was run behind the safety car. He is moving to Mercedes for next season.

“Hopefully Lando will give me a nice little slipstream into turn one,” Russell said. “We've got to be aiming for the podium. We've got nothing to lose and we're just going to go for it.”

Hamilton set the early pace on intermediate tires, but errors toward the end of the session proved costly. The Mercedes driver bumped the wall while coming into the pits and had to change his front wing, and the long delay meant his new slick tires cooled off. After going out, Hamilton lacked grip and had a spin late in the session.

Hamilton said he was “incredibly disappointed” by damaging the car and apologized to the team. “These things are sent to try us, and as much as I feel terrible right now, I’ll turn it into a positive and try to do the best we can,” he said.

Hamilton, the defending champion, will be chasing his 100th career win on Sunday at a track where he has won four times in the past, and where Mercedes cars have won all seven F1 races to date. His teammate Valtteri Bottas starts seventh, and Verstappen's Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez is ninth.

Verstappen leads the championship standings by five points from Hamilton but will start from the back of the grid in the race Sunday because he changed his engine. Mindful of the slippery conditions, Verstappen didn’t try to set a time in qualifying.

Verstappen said incidents near the front of the field would play into his hands during the race.

“I try to score points, but I need a bit of help with things going, let’s say, a bit wrong in the front,” he said.

The Dutch driver had complained of a lack of straight-line speed during Friday practice, even against slower cars, which would hamper him in cutting through the field, but said Saturday that was “not fully representative” of how the Red Bull would work in race conditions.

Charles Leclerc of Ferrari has a similar penalty, as does Nicholas Latifi of Williams.

Heavy rain through the day and low light raised doubts over whether qualifying could go ahead at all, after the Saturday morning practice session was canceled. While waiting, seven-time champion Hamilton skipped down the pit lane under an umbrella in the style of the musical “Singin' in the Rain."

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