First the grass burned, then the rain created a spectacle: Formula 1’s start to its comeback weekend in China turned into chaotic, entertaining entertainment. The fact that dominator Max Verstappen weakened in the Red Bull at the first showdown in Shanghai after a five-year break in China fueled the competition’s hopes of a victory in the 100-kilometer sprint race on Saturday (5 a.m. CEST/Sky) and possibly at the Grand Prix on Sunday (09:00 CEST/Sky).

Especially with Verstappen’s friend Lando Norris. The 24-year-old Brit drove his McLaren to first place in the sprint qualifying under the most difficult conditions on Friday and relegated him to second and third place with a total of nine world championship titles. The highly experienced veterans Lewis Hamilton, 39 years old and seven-time Mercedes champion, and Fernando Alonso, 42 years old and two-time Aston Martin title winner, lined up there.

For Verstappen it felt like he was on ice

Three-time world champion Verstappen followed in fourth place, who, like others, struggled mightily to keep his car on the track. “It was incredibly slippery,” said the World Championship leader: “I had huge problems getting the tires up to temperature.” Things never really went well for him, said Verstappen. “It felt like driving on ice.”

The rain had already increased in intensity in the second knockout phase, and it got really wet in the final eight minutes in the battle for the top ten starting positions. And the two veterans Hamilton and Alonso also showed what they can do. At first it even looked as if Hamilton would take pole position for the sprint in the Mercedes and Alonso would start from row one next to him after Norris’ best time was canceled.

All or nothing on the last lap

The McLaren driver, who has not yet won a Grand Prix or a sprint race, had the lap recognized again and was happy with first place on the grid. “Beautiful, just beautiful,” enthused Norris with a certain happiness in his voice. “You have to take a lot of risks in the conditions. The last lap was all-or-nothing.”

The conditions were made more difficult by Formula 1’s long break in China. In 2019, when there were no sprint races at all, Hamilton won the last Grand Prix in the vast empire to date. What followed was the corona pandemic and the Chinese leadership’s rigorous zero-Covid policy.

Sparks from cars cause meadow fires

The return could hardly have been more promising. The fact that the grass next to the track burned twice before the heavy rain – first in training, then in qualifying – and thus caused interruptions, was also part of the dramaturgy of the opening day at the Shanghai International Circuit.

As the International Automobile Federation explained, initial video observations suggested that the small fires were caused by sparks from cars. Local hero Guanyu Zhou was just as undeterred by this as he was by the stressful days before. The first Chinese regular driver in Formula 1 made it to the final knockout stage to the cheers of his compatriots and started the sprint race from tenth position in the Sauber. In contrast to the Grand Prix (points from place 1 to 10), points are only awarded for the top eight.

Verstappen cannot lose his lead in the standings on Saturday either, he is 13 points ahead of his teammate Sergio Pérez. Behind them are the Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz with 18 and 22 points less than Verstappen. They start the sprint from seventh and fifth place before qualifying for the main race just a few hours later on Saturday.