Penalty-hit Verstappen fastest in Belgian GP qualifying as Leclerc set to start from pole
Max Verstappen claimed a thrilling pole position for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, but a five-place grid penalty sees him drop down the order with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc set to start P1.
With limited running in the lone practice session earlier at Spa in the day due to heavy rain, there were plenty of unknowns regarding the pecking order heading into qualifying – but it was Verstappen who eventually shone the brightest.
On the first runs in Q3, it was Leclerc who went fastest with a time of 1m 47.931s, leading Verstappen in second by over a tenth. His Ferrari team mate, Carlos Sainz completed the top three, albeit over four-tenths behind the Monegasque.
However, after Leclerc once again improved his time, Verstappen came across the line to take pole position by a massive eight-tenths from the Ferrari driver – although Leclerc will inherit pole after Verstappen's five-place grid drop – with his team mate Sergio Perez, in third, albeit nine-tenths off the pace.
Last week’s pole-sitter in Budapest, Lewis Hamilton, pulled out a brilliant final sector to go up to fourth, pushing the Ferrari of Sainz down to fifth.
Fresh from back-to-back podium outings, it was not the position McLaren have become accustomed to with Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris sixth and seventh, respectively, ahead of the Mercedes of George Russell.
FORMULA 1 MSC CRUISES BELGIAN GRAND PRIX 2023
|1 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing
|2 Charles Leclerc LEC Ferrari
|3 Sergio Perez PER Red Bull Racing
|4 Lewis Hamilton HAM Mercedes
|5 Carlos Sainz SAI Ferrari
Aston Martin had admitted that they were the fifth fastest team on the grid, and the timesheets reflected that, with Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll in ninth and 10th, respectively.
Yuki Tsunoda – who briefly topped the timesheets in Q2 – narrowly missed out on a place in the top 10 for AlphaTauri, and will instead start 11th, ahead of the Alpine of Pierre Gasly and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen – who spun into the gravel at Turn 9 in Q2.
Valtteri Bottas was 14th fastest for Alfa Romeo, with Esteban Ocon failing to make it into Q3 for the fourth race in a row after also going into the barrier at Turn 9, damaging his front wing, leaving him unable to set a final lap time in Q2, and down in 15th.
Alex Albon could not make it out of Q1, after running wide on his final lap, and will start Sunday’s race from 16th, while his Williams team mate Logan Sargeant – who left the pit lane late after having a gearbox change – was left in 18th, with the Alfa Romeo of Zhou Guanyu sandwiched between the pair.
It was also bad news for Daniel Ricciardo. While the AlphaTauri driver’s fastest time sent him to sixth, his time was deleted for exceeding track limits, leaving him 19th, ahead of the second Haas of Nico Hulkenberg who brought up the rear of the field.
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Leclerc sets the pace as Ricciardo’s deleted time knocks him out
With the revised Sprint format being used for the third time this season, the drivers and their teams had just one practice session to tune their cars to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, ahead of what looked set to be an intriguing wet/dry qualifying outing.
But after heavy rain hampered much of the running earlier in the day, the drivers were greeted to much better conditions with blue skies even making an appearance.
However, around seven minutes before the green light switched on – after qualifying was delayed by 10 minutes – Mercedes made the decision to send both their drivers to the end of the pit lane on the intermediate tyre, with Russell being told they anticipated rain in five minutes.
As the action got going, it was Russell who went quickest, with a time of 2m 01.485s, leading the championship-topping Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.112s, with his Mercedes team mate, Hamilton in third.
However, as the times began to tumble, it was Piastri who jumped to the top of the leaderboard, while his team mate Norris, fifth at the time, went through the gravel at Turn 15, with the Briton told by his engineer he may have wing damage.
With eight minutes to go in the session, Sargeant made it out onto the track, after the Williams mechanics were forced to repair the damage from his crash in FP1 and change his gearbox.
Sainz then went to the top of the timesheet, leading Verstappen by just 0.019s, with Alonso in third, ahead of Piastri, Russell, Leclerc, Tsunoda, Hamilton and Norris – who made his way back into the pit lane for his mechanics to assess the damage on his car.
Amid a flurry of activity and changes at the top of the leaderboard, Hamilton went to the top of the timesheets, leading Verstappen by 0.091s, with Piastri now third, ahead of Russell, Ocon and Sainz.
However, with two minutes remaining, Norris went up from 14th to eighth, while Ricciardo came back out on a new set of inters, as he looked to make his way out of the bottom five, where he was placed alongside Albon, Sargeant, Magnussen and Hulkenberg.
As the chequered flag was waved, times once again began to drop, as Leclerc vaulted himself to the top of the timesheets after briefly finding himself in the drop zone, with Verstappen and Hamilton making up the top three.
It was not good news for Williams, as Albon dropped to 16th, ahead of Zhou and Sargeant. Ricciardo found himself in 19th, after his fastest time that put him sixth was deleted, with Hulkenberg at the bottom after not coming out of the pit lane late for his final run.
Knocked out: Albon, Zhou, Sargeant, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg
Q2 – Piastri leads the way as Ocon Q3 hopes end with a crash into the barrier
After a short break, the remaining 15 cars made there way out onto the track, once again bolting on the intermediate tyres, although Piastri was quick to tell his team that it was not too far away from slicks.
But before that change was made all the drivers, except for Norris, looked to set banker laps. The McLaren driver's car was being further inspected for damage, while Verstappen set the fastest lap of 1m 55.535s, leading Perez by over four-tenths.
Norris eventually made his way back out on to the track and was on a flying lap on the intermediate tyres, before he and a number of other drivers made the call to switch to slicks. However, there was a difference in opinion at Aston Martin, with Stroll putting on a new set of inters.
As the drivers looked to get the softs up to temperature, there would have been sweaty palms at Ferrari, Mercedes, and McLaren, with Sainz down in the drop zone, in 11th, ahead of both Hamilton and Russell, while Norris was down in 15th.
After a pair of consecutive double DNFs for Alpine, they would have been hoping for a clean weekend. But those hopes disappeared when Ocon damaged his front wing after crashing into the barrier at Turn 9 – while Stroll changed to slicks.
With two minutes left and the soft tyres now switched on, there was a flurry of changes on the leaderboard, with Norris going fastest by over six-tenths from his former team mate, Sainz, as the drivers set off on their final laps.
The times began to tumble even more, as the other McLaren of Piastri vaulted up to the top of the timesheets, with Sainz once again going second fastest, just under two-tenths behind the rookie, with the other Ferrari of Leclerc in third.
There would have also been plenty of nerves at Red Bull, as while Perez was seventh, Verstappen was only able to finish 10th in the session. The Dutch driver vented his frustration on the run plan over the team radio, only to receive a spicy response from his engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase..
Tsunoda, who in all the chaos had briefly gone fastest in Q2, finished 11th, ahead of Gasly, Magnussen – who also spun into the gravel at Turn 9 – and Bottas, while Ocon could not come back out for his final run, leaving him down in 15th.
Knocked out: Tsunoda, Gasly, Magnussen, Bottas, Ocon
Q3 – Verstappen blitzes the field as Leclerc seals P1 start
With pole position on the line, all 10 drivers made their way out after a delayed start to Q3, with the marshals forced to clear up the gravel caused by Magnussen’s off-track excursion at the end of Q2.
Those 10 drivers, all from Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, and Aston Martin went for quick flying laps, but it was Leclerc who went fastest, with a time of 1m 47.931s, leading Verstappen by over a tenth.
Each driver opted to do one lap, except for the Mercedes pair of Hamilton and Russell, after their first runs left them eighth and 10th, respectively. Their second laps saw an improvement, as Hamilton and Russell moved up to sixth and ninth, respectively.
With under three minutes to go the drivers made their way back out onto the track for the final laps of the session, with Leclerc the first to cross the line, as he increased his lead to over one second to his nearest rivals.
With the chequered flag waving, Verstappen crossed the line to go over eight-tenths faster than Leclerc, with his Red Bull team mate Perez in third, ahead of Hamilton – who set the fastest final sector en route to going fourth.
Sainz wound up fifth fastest for Ferrari, ahead of the McLaren pair of Piastri and Norris in sixth and seventh, respectively, while Russell ended up in eighth, with the Aston Martins of Alonso and Stroll rounding out the top 10.
“It was very tight” said pole-sitter Max Verstappen. “Of course the conditions were very tricky. The track was really drying quickly, and my final lap, I just didn’t have that confidence in Q2 to push more and I was very lucky to be in P10.
"But then of course in Q3, you’ve got two tyre sets, you know that you can push a little more, you can risk a little bit more, and that’s what we did on that final lap. To be on pole again, I know I have to drop back again on Sunday with the penalty I have, but it was the best I could do today."
Next up for the drivers is a flurry of Sprint action at Spa, with the Sprint Shootout (1200 local time) and Sprint race (1630) to come on Saturday, followed by the main Grand Prix at 1500 on Sunday. Head to the RACE HUB for more information.