The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton has officially matched the all-time pole position record at the Belgian Grand Prix after smashing the track record on his way to pole.
Hamilton, who is starting his 200th Grand Prix this weekend, has looked to be in fine form all weekend as he topped every segment of Qualifying. During Q2 he broke the lap record on several occasions before once again breaking it in Q3, finally setting the fastest time on a 1:42.553. The pole was the 68th of his career, which matches the all-time record set by F1 legend Michael Schumacher. Hamilton was visibly moved to tears when he was being interviewed after the session, especially when F1 boss Ross Brawn delivered a message to Hamilton on behalf of the Schumacher family. The family wished to congratulate Hamilton on equalling Schumacher’s record.
“It is special,” said Hamilton. “To hear the message that Ross just gave I have to say a big thank you. I think and pray for Michael all the time. I’ve had the privilege of racing with him and always admired him and still to do. I’m just honoured to be up there with him now in the poles but he will still be one of the greatest of all time.”
Hamilton’s championship rival Sebastian Vettel will start alongside him in his Ferrari after a last minute save from the German. The title leader, who announced just before Qualifying a new three year deal with Ferrari, did not look to be as comfortable as Hamilton and his team mate Kimi Raikkonen in the opening sessions this weekend. Vettel had been running as low as fifth place in the timesheets and did not look like he was in the hunt for pole today. However he produced an impressive flying lap to finish just two tenths of a second behind Hamilton, and his reward was second place on the grid for the race.
Admittedly he was helped by Raikkonen, who made a mistake on his final flying lap. The Finn had been impressive all weekend, topping two of the free practice sessions and regularly setting fast lap times in the first two qualifying sessions. But after his mistake on the final lap he opted to give Vettel a ‘tow’ to assist the German’s recovery.
“I got a good feeling in Q1 but I lost that feeling a little bit,” said Vettel. “The last lap the car was more alive. I was a bit lucky with Kimi who had to abort the lap and he gave me a very nice tow which made it a bit more comfortable with Valtteri.”
Valtteri Bottas was just pipped to second place by Vettel, denying Mercedes their 50th career front row lock out. The Finn was quick to admit after the session he didn’t feel he was as fast as Hamilton this weekend, and that pole position was really out of range for him. He will be joined on the second row of the grid by fellow countryman Raikkonen, who will be rueing his mistake.
Although Mercedes have dominated the battle for pole position today, the team are aware Ferrari are expected to offer a far tougher proposition in race trim having impressed on their long runs during Friday’s practice sessions, with Vettel’s times in particular during his race simulations worrying the Mercedes team yesterday.
Max Verstappen brought some happiness to the army of Dutch fans camping out at Spa this weekend with fifth on the grid tomorrow, ahead of his team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Much like at the start of the season the Red Bulls look to be in a field by themselves, not quite fast enough to worry the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, but fast enough to be comfortably ahead of the rest of the midfield. The team could surprise the front runners tomorrow though, especially if the weather changes.
Nico Hulkenberg managed another impressive qualifying session in his Renault and will start the race seventh tomorrow in front of the two Force India’s, with Sergio Perez in eighth a place ahead of his team mate Esteban Ocon.
The final top ten position was filled by the Renault of Jolyon Palmer, who reached the Q3 session for only the second time this year, though the under pressure Brit did not have it all his own way. Palmer has looked to be faster than Hulkenberg this weekend, and even outpaced him in several of the sessions, including in Q2. He looked on track for a possible top seven start, but his Renault gearbox blew on his out lap in Q3, leaving him stranded at the trackside. He had to settle for tenth place, though it is likely he will face a five place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.
“It’s such a shame because we were going great guns out there,” bemoaned Palmer after he came back to the paddock. “Both my laps in Q2 would have put me seventh on the grid.”
He was not the only driver to suffer engine problems, as once again the Honda engine in the back of the McLaren of Fernando Alonso broke down during Q2. Both McLarens seemed to be running well during the first session, comfortably making out of the bottom five. But despite being given an aerodynamic tow along the Kemmel Straight by his team mate, local boy Stoffel Vandoorne, Alonso failed to reach the top ten. He abandoned his final flying lap and could be heard shouting “no power” over his McLaren team radio.
Another team struggling today were Williams, as both of their drivers failed to make it out of Q1 for the second qualifying in succession. The team, who traditionally have gone well at Spa in the past, seemed to be nowhere during the session. Both drivers complained afterwards that the car simply wasn’t good enough, and that it needed more downforce and to be faster if the team wanted them to qualify well. The Grove based team seemed to have lost out in the development race this season, having had the fourth fastest car at the beginning of the season. Felipe Massa could only manage 16th in his car, but will take a crumb of solace in the fact he outqualified his team mate Lance Stroll in 18th. Stroll failed to complete a second run in Q1 as the team pitted him due to a part of the rear wing endplate breaking off the car due to the extreme oscillations the cars are under here.
The silver lining for Stroll is he will start from 15th on the grid tomorrow following various grid penalties for drivers around him. These include his team mate Massa, who gets a five place grid penalty and a 10 000 euro fine for not slowing down for yellow flags in FP3 today. The Sauber’s of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, who have penalties for component changes. The Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat who has a twenty five place grid penalty for an engine and component change. And the McLaren of Vandoorne who has a sixty five place grid penalty for multiple engine changes.
Stroll may pick up even more grid positions and could start from as high up as 13th tomorrow if Alonso needs to change something following his loss of power, and if Palmer needs to change his gearbox.
With the longest lap on the Formula 1 calendar, a long run down into the first corner, unpredictable weather, tricky corners ready to punish anyone who doesn’t show them the respect they deserve, and Hamilton and Vettel starting alongside one another, this is definitely a race not to be missed.
Belgian Qualifying Grid
1) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes: 1:42.553
2) Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari: 1:42.793
3) Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes: 1:43.094
4) Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: 1:43.270
5) Max Verstappen, Red Bull: 1:13.380
6) Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull: 1:43.863
7) Nico Hulkenberg, Renault: 1:44.982
8) Sergio Perez, Force India: 1:45.244
9) Esteban Ocon, Force India: 1:45.369
10) Jolyon Palmer, Renault: Not Time Set
Knocked out in Q2
11) Fernando Alonso, McLaren: 1:45.090
12) Romain Grosjean, Haas: 1:45.133
13) Kevin Magnussen, Haas: 1:45.400
14) Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso: 1:45.439
15) Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren: No Time Set (65 place grid penalty yet to be applied)
Knocked out in Q1
16) Felipe Massa, Williams: 1:45.823 (five place grid penalty yet to be applied)
17) Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso: 4:46.028 (25 place grid penalty yet to be applied)
18) Lance Stroll, Williams: 1:46.915
19) Marcus Ericsson, Sauber: 1:47.214 (five place grid penalty yet to be applied)
20) Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber: 1:47.679 (five place grid penalty yet to be applied)
Feature Image Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Press Release.