Lewis Hamilton has seized his sixth pole position of the season thanks to a mid-session deluge during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.
The Briton and his Mercedes team seemed unlikely pole contenders after Ferrari dominated free practice throughout the weekend, but momentary heavy rain between Q2 and Q3 made conditions for the top-10 shootout something of a lottery.
All 10 drivers took to the track on slicks at first, but the circuit was far too wet. Valtteri Bottas, who led the field out of the pit lane, spun his car at the fastest part of the circuit and recovered, and Sergio Perez narrowly avoided a crash at Eau Rouge.
Intermediate tyres were the order of the day for all 10 qualifiers for the final 10 minutes, and though grip was at a premium at first, the track began drying rapidly as the sun broke through the clouds.
The times began to tumble, but it wasn’t until Hamilton set his best time —1 minute 58.179 seconds, more than three seconds faster than anyone else — that a real provisional pole marker was set down.
Vettel was behind Hamilton on track, giving the German the last word in the best conditions, but his Ferrari had chewed through its tyres, leaving him with an almost 0.8-second deficit to the Briton.
It was the second qualifying session in succession rain had helped Mercedes to pole, but Hamilton insisted it would have been close ever without the downpour.
“It was one of the toughest qualifying sessions I can remember,” he said. I don’t know if [Ferrari] definitely had it — we were very, very close.
“I was hopeful I could make that slight difference.
“I can’t even express to you how difficult it was. I went off at turn 1. You don’t know where the limit is.
“It was so hard — I went off twice — so glad I managed to keep it together on the last lap.”
Vettel’s disappointment was visible through his visor as he parked his car on the grid at the end of the session. Ferrari had been quickest all weekend, but the weather had conspired against him to deprive him his pole.
“In these conditions it might be anything,” Vettel said, reflecting on the randomness of the conditions. “I think we had the pace today for pole, but we’ll never find out.
“[But] I think the gap was quite big, so Lewis deserved to get the pole.”
Esteban Ocon qualified a sensational third for Force India just two days after being granted permission to race by the FIA after being placed into administration during the midseason break.
Though the team has retained the Force India moniker, it is racing under a different licence and business number, making it a new entry. It will therefore start the Belgian Grand Prix with zero points.
“It’s fantastic,” Ocon enthused. “Awesome to be in Q3 after such a difficult time with the team.
“Now we’re starting fresh, and I’m definitely happy with that result.”
Ocon starts one place ahead of teammate Sergio Perez, delivering Force India a second-row lockout and putting it in an ideal position to begin recovering the 59 points it lost through the administration process.
Romain Grosjean qualified a superb fifth in his Ferrari-powered Haas, one place ahead of Ferrari works driver Kimi Raikkonen.
Finn Raikkonen was looking likely to contend for pole throughout qualifying, but he was forced to end his session early after being underfuelled in the chaos at the beginning of the top-10 shootout.
Red Bull Racing had struggled all weekend, in part thanks to the Renault power unit’s lack of straight-line speed. Both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo ran low-downforce set-ups, but the rain in turn made that configuration extremely difficult to drive, compounding the problem.
Verstappen qualified seventh and Ricciardo eighth, but both were underfuelled, meaning neither could complete the maximum number of laps.
Kevin Magnussen qualified ninth in the second Haas ahead of only Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas, who didn’t set a timed lap. The Finn will start the race from the back of the grid with an engine change penalty.
Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley qualified 0.021 seconds apart in 11th and 12th despite the latter spinning his car at the hairpin in what looked like a brake by wire problem on his final lap.
The Honda-powered cars bettered their Ferrari-powered Sauber counterparts, with Charles Leclerc beating teammate Marcus Ericsson by three-tenths of a second in 13th and 14th.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg opted not to set a time. The German will start the race of the back of the grid regardless after fitting new power unit parts in excess of the maximum allowed for the season this weekend.
There was an obvious gap between the midfield and the backmarkers in Q1, with McLaren and Williams comprising the unhappy latter category.
Carlos Sainz was unlucky to qualify 16th as the fastest of the five eliminated cars in Q1, the Spaniard complaining his Renault machine was delivering a lack of grip around Spa-Francorchamps’s fast bends.
Behind him qualified compatriot Fernando Alonso in the McLaren driver’s worst Saturday performance of the season.
Things could’ve been worse for the Spaniard, however — his teammate, Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, was the slowest of all in qualifying on a weekend the 26-year-old is fighting to convince his team to retain him for the rest of the season.
Between the two papaya orange McLarens qualified Williams duo Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll.
All five drivers will be promoted two places when Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas take their grid penalties for exceeding their allocation of engine parts this weekend.