Leclerc peerless in Belgian qualifying masterclass

Charles Leclerc on track at the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix

Charles Leclerc has dominated qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix to take his third F1 career pole position and lead a Ferrari front-row lockout.

Ferrari’s powerful engine virtually guaranteed it the front row at the power-sensitive Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, but Leclerc was in a class of his own, taking provisional pole after the first run of laps while teammate Sebastian Vettel struggled in third.

Vettel rallied the second time around with a strong first sector, but the German’s challenge faded as his lap progressed, with a messy second sector and a lock-up into the penultimate corner stifling the lap.

The way was clear for Leclerc to consolidate his position at the head of the grid, and his final lap — a time of one minute 42.519 seconds — was good enough to gap Vettel by a whopping 0.748 seconds.

“It felt good,” Leclerc said. “I struggled quite a bit [at first], but after that, from the second corner onwards, we were very strong and it felt amazing.”

However, Leclerc admitted he expected a stronger challenge from Mercedes and Red Bull Racing during the grand prix after Friday practice suggested Ferrari would struggle over a race distance.

“We were struggling a little bit more during the race pace yesterday,” he said. “We need to work on that, but looking at the pace today I’m pretty sure we’ll be strong.”

Vettel was frustrated to miss a chance at his second pole position of the season, lamenting traffic during his first lap putting him off his rhythm for his second attempt.

“In the end it’s good that we secured the first row, but to fight pole I was sort of in the queue,” he said. “It doesn’t help, but no excuses — we look forward to the race tomorrow.”

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton qualified third, less than 0.02 seconds behind Vettel, marking a strong turnaround for the Briton after a messy crash during morning practice forced his team to rebuild the front of his car in the two hours before qualifying.

The Mercedes mechanics got the job done with only minutes to spare, and Hamilton paid credit to the team for its work preparing his car.

“FP3 was a terrible session for me and of course it’s painful because you know how many people work so hard to build those parts,” he said. “My guys are just faultless. They always work and give 100 per cent I was just trying to pay them back with a good qualifying session.”

Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas qualified fourth, with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen fifth but almost 1.2 seconds off pole position.

Renault teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg qualified sixth and seventh, but both will be demoted five places to 11th and 12th on the grid with power unit penalties.

Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen, who qualified from eighth to 10th, will each move up two places as a result, as will Romain Grosjean and Lando Norris, who were knocked out in Q2.

Racing Point’s Lance Stroll and Red Bull Racing’s Alex Albon qualified 13th and 14th, but both drivers only half-heartedly took to qualifying knowing that a string of engine penalties would drop them to 18th and 19th on the grid.

Antonio Giovinazzi qualified 15th but didn’t set a time in Q2, the Italian confined to his garage with an engine problem.

The Alfa Romeo driver had snuck into the second qualifying segment despite parking his car by the side of the road in the final minute of Q1 with an apparent power unit failure despite being equipped with a brand-new Ferrari motor.

The stranded car triggered a red flag, which was bad news for McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and both Toro Rosso drivers, who were caught out by the abrupt ending.

Pierre Gasly qualified 16th for Toro Rosso ahead of Sainz and teammate Daniil Kvyat, but and engine penalty for the last-named Russian will drop him to the back of the grid.

Williams driver George Russell will be promoted from 19th to 15th as a result, while teammate Robert Kubica will start from 16th despite failing to set a time in qualifying when his engine failed on his first attempt at a flying lap in Q1. The Pole pulled to the side of the road, his exhaust on fire and his Mercedes power unit billowing smoke, and was forced to seek permission from the stewards to enter the race.

It was a concerning development for Mercedes, which introduced its latest engine upgrade this weekend to tackle the notoriously power-demanding Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and followed Sergio Perez experiencing a similar failure in his Mercedes-powered Racing Point during Friday practice.