FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Once again, Mercedes proved to be the hot hand in Formula One qualifying, but they received their stiffest challenge yet from the rest of the field in Saturday’s three-round knockout session in Belgium.
Nico Rosberg’s Silver Arrow beat the Red Bull of Max Verstappen to the pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix in Saturday’s qualifying session at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, but the margin was just .149 of a second as the top five was covered by just five tenths in the end.
Rosberg powered to a quick lap of 1:46.744 in the final knockout round, securing his sixth pole of the season and 28th of his career in the process, moving to within one of Juan Manuel Fangio for eighth on the series’ all-time list.
“We had a difficult weekend until qualifying. Especially this morning we were thinking that we were off the pace a bit. So I was really happy to grab pole today,” Rosberg said. “The Red Bulls were quickest on the long runs on Friday, so we need to be at our best to beat them.”
“The tires are a big challenge in the heat here this weekend. The degradation is very high. My disadvantage at the start is that I have a harder tire with lower grip, so Max should get off the line quicker on the supersoft. I reckon that, with some luck and a maybe a Safety Car, Lewis can climb up to the top very quickly, so he can’t be ruled out either. In any case, I’m pleased with my qualifying and looking forward to tomorrow. It will be an exciting and intense race.”
18-year-old Verstappen set a record with his qualifying effort, becoming the youngest driver in history to ever start on the front row for an F1 grand prix. His lap of 1:46.893 puts him in the conversation to notch his second-career victory come Sunday afternoon.
“I think in the end to be so close to them (Mercedes) on a track with some long straights, we can be very pleased with that,” Verstappen said. “The whole weekend has been very smooth, even though I had some little issues this morning. From there on the mechanics did a great job and in qualifying the car was working really well, as you could see in sector two.”
“I’m just very pleased to be second here in front of my fans, it’s just a great motivation when you see them next to the track.”
Ferrari swept the second row, with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel starting third and fourth, and Daniel Ricciardo rounded out the top five in another Red Bull entry.
Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were sixth and seventh for Force India, with Valtteri Bottas, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa rounding out the top 10.
Lewis Hamilton failed to advance out of the first round of qualifying for the first time all season, but would have been relegated to the rear anyways as a result of numerous engine-related grid penalties.
Hamilton qualified 21st and will start there on Sunday, having chosen to focus on race pace with his Mercedes.
“The key for me is making sure I come out of tomorrow having lost the fewest points possible – and that meant having as many fresh sets of tires available as possible and making sure the car was set up well,” Hamilton said. “I can’t say right now what the plan is – the team will know already what’s best and we’ll discuss that later. We’re not easily the quickest here. We’re all going to have massive degradation and looking after the tires will be a struggle for everyone.”
“It’s going to be far from an easy, breezy day but I have to try and get to where I can just pick people off. There will be lots of pit stops and who knows what else. I’m going to have to battle my way through the traffic – but I’ll give it my best as always and see where I end up.”
The Belgian Grand Prix takes the green flag at 8 a.m. ET Sunday, with live coverage on NBCSN.