Nico Rosberg has claimed pole position for the Belgian GP to start 20 places ahead of Mercedes team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton.
The German beat Spa fans’ favourite Max Verstappen by a tenth of a second to secure his third successive pole and leave the German ideally placed to eat into Hamilton’s 19-point lead in the world championship.
“It’s going to be a very challenging race because the tyres are extremely difficult,” cautioned Rosberg. “It will not be easy.”
Kimi Raikkonen, a recognised Spa specialist, took third for Ferrari, a place ahead of team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Daniel Ricciardo was just fifth after a mistake on his flying lap – but may be better placed to challenge for the win than his supersoft-starting Red Bull team-mate Verstappen.
After rolling the strategic dice in Q2, Rosberg, Ricciardo, Vettel and Raikkonen will, unlike the teenager, be able to start the race on the soft tyres which are expected to be the preferred Sunday compound of choice. Dismissed by Hamilton as “horrible”, the supersoft tyre has consistently rapidly lost performance all weekend amid unexpectedly hot conditions in the Ardennes.
“Max wanted his strategy and l wanted mine so we both obviously feel it’s the right way to go,” said Ricciardo. “I’m happy that I’ve picked the best one.”
With his demotion to the back of the grid already confirmed due to a series of engine-related penalties, world champion Hamilton completed just four laps in Q1 to ensure he would be permitted to participate in the race before parking up for the day.
The Mercedes driver will be joined on the back row by former McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso after the Spaniard’s new Honda engine failed for the second time this weekend.
“It was definitely a weird qualifying session for me,” said Hamilton. “Today was really important for us to make sure the car was right for tomorrow. There was no point in showing any pace today.”
Jenson Button provided a hefty measure of comfort for McLaren by unexpectedly reaching the top ten and taking ninth ahead of Williams’ Felipe Massa – an outcome which will do nothing to quell the rising expectation in the paddock that Massa will be replaced by Button next season. “It was one of the best laps I’ve ever done,” said Button.
Jolyon Palmer registered his best qualifying result of the year as he claimed 14th. But it was a bittersweet afternoon for the Renault rookie as team-mate Kevin Magnussen, also fighting for his future with the team, finished 12th.
Pascal Wehrlein won the battle of the two Mercedes hopefuls at Manor as he reached Q2 while new team-mate – and fellow Silver Arrows protégé -Esteban Ocon fell at the first hurdle.
But while there was respectability for Ocon, with just two tenths separating him from Wehrlein on his F1 debut, there was more misery for under-pressure Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat as the Russian struggled to a distant 19th.
Belgian GP Qualifying
1. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, 1:46.744
2. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:46.893
3. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1:46.910
4. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 1:47.108
5. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, 1:47.216
6. Sergio Perez, Force India, 1:47.407
7. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India, 1:47.543
8. Valtteri Bottas, Williams, 1:47.612
9. Jenson Button, McLaren, 1:48.114
10. Felipe Massa, Williams, 1:48.263
11. Romain Grosjean, Haas, 1:48.316
12. Kevin Magnussen, Renault, 1:48.485
13. Esteban Gutierrez, Haas, 1:48.598
14. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, 1:48.888
15. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, 1:49.038
16. Pascal Wehrlein, Manor, 1:49.320
17. Felipe Nasr, Sauber, 1:48.949
18. Esteban Ocon, Manor, 1:49.050
19. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, 1:49.058
20. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, 1:49.071
21. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:50.033
22. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, No time set