As rain finally arrived at Spa-Francorchamps, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton mastered the difficult conditions to grab pole ahead of title rival Sebastian Vettel. Meanwhile, Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez completed a dream day for the new-look Force India by qualifying just behind them in third and fourth.
The chance of rain was at 90%, but the cars ventured out on to the track amid bright sunshine in Q1. Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen laid down the early benchmark on soft tyres. He wasn’t to be beaten in the opening stanza as Valtteri Bottas went second ahead of teammate Hamilton.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was forced to make two attempts on the fastest supersoft tyres in order to comfortably reach Q2. He was seventh fastest ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean.
Meanwhile, the man Ricciardo is to replace at Renault next year, Carlos Sainz Jr., missed the cut and ended up in 16th place, complaining of a lack of rear grip. Countryman Fernando Alonso, Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll and luckless Stoffel Vandoorne, at his home Grand Prix, joined Sainz in elimination.
Those drivers will benefit from the fact that Bottas and Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg will receive penalties for exceeding their power unit limit.
In fact, Hülkenberg opted out of running in Q2. With clouds beginning to darken, Vettel took over as the pacesetter. The German claimed the outright track record just 0.032s ahead of team mate Räikkönen.
Red Bull continued to struggle as Max Verstappen ended the second segment fifth and Ricciardo eighth. The pair were split by the Force India of Sergio Perez and the Haas of Romain Grosjean.
Out with Hulkenberg went the Toro Rossos of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley and the Saubers of Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson.
As the final period of qualifying began, so did the rain. With drivers initially heading out on dry tyres, Bottas lost control of his Mercedes and spun at the incredibly fast Blanchimont. Mercedes had planned to use Bottas to give Hamilton a slipstream advantage during Q3, but the plan was aborted following his spin.
Sergio Pérez had his own scary-but-harmless moment before drivers began diving into the pits for intermediate tyres.
With the rain having stopped and the track still wet, Hamilton punched in the fastest time to take Mercedes’ sixth straight pole position at Spa and his fifth, surpassing Juan Manuel Fangio’s record on the old track and Ayrton Senna’s record on the new one.
“That was one of the toughest qualifying sessions I can remember,” said Hamilton. “I can’t express to you how difficult it was. None of us have driven in the rain this weekend. You saw I went off at Turn 1, you’re tiptoeing, you don’t know where the limit is, the track looks dry in some places but it’s actually wet. With these tyres, it was so hard. I went off twice, but I managed to keep it together.”
He defeated Vettel by a margin of 0.726s, who rued Ferrari getting their timing wrong.
Meanwhile, the Force India cars times their runs to perfection. Esteban Ocon finished the session third heading Pérez just behind to lock out the second row of the grid and equal each of their best ever starting positions for a race.
Romain Grosjean finally pulled a lap together when it mattered to claim fifth ahead of Räikkönen. In what looked to be a strategic error, Ferrari failed to fuel Räikkönen’s car sufficiently to allow the Finn more than one run.
It was still better than the pair of Red Bulls with Verstappen ending the session seventh ahead of Ricciardo with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Bottas rounding out the top ten.
2018 Belgian Grand Prix Starting Grid: Hamilton, Vettel, Ocon, Pérez, Grosjean, Räikkönen, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Magnussen, Gasly, Hartley, Leclerc, Ericsson, Sainz, Alonso, Sirotkin, Stroll, Vandoorne, Bottas and Hülkenberg.