“Come on baby!” said Charles Leclerc as took a stunning pole position for Sunday’s Belgium Grand Prix, the Monegasque a staggering three quarters of a second clear of Sebastian Vettel as Ferrari locked out the front row at Spa Francorchamps.
You have to say it was coming, Leclerc having led two of the three practice sessions and all segments of qualifying to put a Ferrari powered-car on P1 at Spa for the first time since Kimi Raikkonen achieved the feat 12 years ago in 2007.
Vettel bemoaned traffic, which was a problem for all of the field despite this being a 7.004km lap. All the drivers wanted to line themselves up in order to slipstream another car, but this caused a car park at the final chicane and also led to the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas getting too close for comfort.
That said, Vettel still made it a front row lock-out for Ferrari – but only just, his final lap just 0.015s quicker than championship leader Hamilton’s effort.
Mercedes, who have taken the last six poles at Spa, have not been at the races this weekend, with the Brackley-based team under pressure to even get Hamilton’s car ready in time for qualifying after he crashed in final practice.
But the Briton recovered to finish third, a tenth ahead of Bottas with Max Verstappen – roared on by a huge Dutch contingent, decked out in orange, in fifth. His new Red Bull team mate Alexander Albon, making his debut with the team this weekend, was 14th after running a different programme as he was already set to start from the back due to engine penalties.
Daniel Ricciardo finished an impressive sixth, one place ahead of Renault team mate Nico Hulkenberg with Kimi Raikkonen edged out into eighth. Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who signed a new three-year deal on Friday, and Kevin Magnussen completed the top 10.
The session was only two minutes old when it was halted by a red flag, caused when Robert Kubica’s Mercedes engine let go and caught fire in spectacular fashion. It was the second failure in as many days for the German manufacturer on a weekend where, like all their rivals, they brought a new specification.
A headache for Mercedes, no doubt. But the delay did at least give the works team more time to work on getting Lewis Hamilton’s car ready for action after he crashed heavily in final practice earlier on Saturday. It meant on resumption, the championship leader could join the fray immediately. Without the delay, it would have likely have been touch and go to get out in time.
Leclerc picked up where he left off in practice, lighting up the timesheets to go 0.522s quicker than Vettel, with Bottas and Hamilton a staggering one second further back. Elsewhere, there was tension at Red Bull as Verstappen reported a problem on his first flying lap, forcing him to box to investigate.
But there was no need to worry as the Dutchman got back out with three laps to go and promptly went third fastest, ahead of both Mercedes, whose headed out on fresh tyres but were forced to abort their runs along with the rest of the field when Antonio Giovinazzi, running the new spec Ferrari, stopped on track on the exit of La Source with a suspected power unit problem.
The session was red flagged, with teams told that with only a minute to go, it would not be restarted. Pierre Gasly was the best-placed driver to get knocked out, the driver demoted to Red Bull finishing two places ahead of Toro Rosso team mate Daniil Kvyat in his first race back with the Italian outfit. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, meanwhile, failed to escape Q1 for the first time since Australia.
Knocked out: Gasly, Sainz, Kvyat, Russell, Kubica
Leclerc maintained his position at the top of the times, but his advantage was slashed to just over a tenth of a second over Vettel – and that was despite being down on his Ferrari team mate in the first two sectors.
Mercedes were closer than they’ve been all weekend, with Hamilton just 0.216s off the pace after a flurry of runs. There was no repeat of the problems that afflicted Verstappen in Q1, the Dutchman easing through in fifth, a tenth behind Bottas and three quarters of a second off the pace.
Everyone apart from Verstappen, Stroll and Albon headed out for a final run. Leclerc improved by a fraction, as did Vettel with the gap between the two down to less than a tenth of a second. Hulkenberg and Magnussen proved in the closing stages, hauling both into the top 10.
As a result, Grosjean was handed an early bath, ending up 11th fastest. He was knocked out with Lando Norris, meaning McLaren failed to reach Q3 with either car for the first time since Spain. Lance Stroll and Alex Albon, who didn’t set his fastest lap because he knew he was set to start at the back of the field, also failed to make the cut while Giovinazzi’s engine failure meant he was unable to set a lap time.
Knocked out: Grosjean, Norris, Stroll, Albon, Giovinazzi
There was some bizarre antics between the Mercedes duo on the out laps as Bottas slowed almost to a stop at Stavelot as he tried to get a gap. Hamilton tucked in behind him – because he didn’t want to lose a tow on his push lap – and even locked up when he was caught out by just how slow his team mate was going.
This affected both of their first sectors on their first runs, with Hamilton ending the quicker of the two, but they were blown out of the water by Leclerc who pumped in a lap six tenths quicker. His Ferrari team mate Vettel made a mistake and was eight tenths of a second behind in third.
The faffing around on their outlaps meant the whole field had to do very quick in-laps to get back in the pits and rejoin in time to complete a second run. There was then a repeat of the silliness as everyone backed off at the bus stop chicane, with Hamilton even jumping ahead of Vettel, to leave him running behind Leclerc.
None of this seemed to faze Leclerc, mind. He simply got on with it, pumping in another fastest lap to extend his lead at the top of the charts – and no one else could respond. It meant he outqualified Vettel for a six consecutive race.
It’s certainly advantage Ferrari, the Scuderia taking their 63rd front row lockout to move one behind Mercedes in the all-time list as search for their first victory of 2019. The omens look good for them, too, with the winner of eight of the last nine races having started on the front row.
That said, last time Hamilton started third on the grid, which incidentally was at the last race in Hungary, he went on to win the race. Plenty, then, to look forward to tomorrow, when the conditions are set to be very different with the temperatures are expected to drop by around 10 degrees Celsius.
Lights go out at 15:10 local time tomorrow in Spa with the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix set to be fought out over 44 laps. Can Ferrari finally pick up a first win of the season?