QUALIFYING: Verstappen denies Russell shock pole in dramatic wet qualifying session at Spa
Max Verstappen pumped in a sensational lap in wet conditions to take pole for the Belgian Grand Prix, usurping George Russell after the Williams delivered the performance of his life to secure a shock front row start.
It was Russell who looked to have mastered a sodden but drying Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the Williams driver building confidence through the session to set purple sectors across the board to take provisional pole at the flag.
But title contenders Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen were still on laps, with Hamilton going purple in the second sector, but losing a bit of ground in the final sector to miss out by just 0.013s.
Then attention switched to Verstappen, who went purple in the second sector and then the final sequence of corners to snatch pole for the sixth time this season to the delight of the loyal Dutch contingent who have packed the grandstands all day at Spa in wet and cold conditions.
Russell held on to second for the second front row start of his career (his first came for Mercedes in Bahrain last year) and the first for Williams since Monza 2017.
FORMULA 1 ROLEX BELGIAN GRAND PRIX 2021
|1 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing||1:59.765|
|2 George Russell RUS Williams||2:00.086|
|3 Lewis Hamilton HAM Mercedes||2:00.099|
|4 Daniel Ricciardo RIC McLaren||2:00.864|
|5 Sebastian Vettel VET Aston Martin||2:00.935|
Daniel Ricciardo secured his best qualifying performance since joining McLaren this year with fourth, but there was frustration for team mate Lando Norris, who crashed heavily at Raidillon in Q3, having been quickest in each of the first two segments of qualifying. Norris walked away unscathed.
Sebastian Vettel was fifth – his best start for Aston Martin, with Pierre Gasly continuing his fine qualifying for this season with his ninth top-six start in 12 Grands Prix this season – as Formula 1 saw six different teams fill out the top six positions.
Sergio Perez, who was confirmed as a Red Bull driver for 2022 on Friday, was seventh, ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes. Bottas will start 13th, though, after a five-place grid penalty is applied for causing a collision in Hungary.
Ocon was ninth, as he levelled the head-to-head 6-6 with Alpine team mate Fernando Alonso, with Norris completing the top 10, though it’s likely the McLaren driver will start from the pit lane because of the significant damage incurred in his crash.
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Norris leads the way, as Alfa Romeo struggle
The heavens opened around 30 minutes before qualifying was set to begin, soaking the track and making the work mechanics had done drying the pit boxes with blowers immediately redundant.
Though the rain intensity eased, the F1 Race Director Michael Masi opted to delay the start of qualifying until conditions improved, with the session finally getting under way 12 minutes behind schedule.
All cars bar the Williams pair headed out on wet tyres, with George Russell and Nicholas Latifi choosing the intermediates. At first, it seemed too bold a choice as Latifi skated off track into the grass before re-joining, however when the tyres were up to temperature next time around, they went one-two by six seconds with Russell ahead.
That was the signal that inters were the way to go, with the rest of the field heading in for the green-marked tyres – and as the track continued to dry, the lap times tumbled.
The Aston Martin duo of Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll plus Fernando Alonso, whose Alpine team had a power cut to the pit wall just five minutes before the session meaning they were running blind early on, were in the drop zone with three minutes remaining.
But all three got themselves out of trouble, though Alonso was on the bubble with team mate Esteban Ocon in 14th and 15th respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi missed out in 16th, as did team mate Kimi Raikkonen (19th) with the latter describing the session as a “disaster”.
Yuki Tsunoda also had an early bath in 17th, nine places behind AlphaTauri team mate Pierre Gasly, with the Haas duo Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, who got his long-awaited new chassis this weekend, 18th and 20th.
Up front, Lando Norris and Max Verstappen enjoyed a battle for top spot. Norris went quickest first, then Verstappen usurped him, then Norris reclaimed, with reigning champion Lewis Hamilton easing into third.
Knocked out: Giovinazzi, Tsunoda, Schumacher, Raikkonen, Mazepin
Q2 – Verstappen sets pace as Mercedes duo leave it late
Hamilton had only just headed out on track on used intermediates when his team told him to pit because everyone else had gone for a fresh set. That put him on the backfoot and he ultimately ended up fighting to get out of the drop zone with just two minutes remaining.
The Briton managed to scrape through, but was forced to use an extra set of fresh tyres to do so. His team mate Bottas also left it late to sneak in. It was far smoother for Norris and Verstappen, who eased through to the final part of qualifying in first and second respectively.
Vettel left it late to progress, the German benefitting from a huge tow from team mate Lance Stroll on the Kemmel Straight – worth around 0.4s – to catapult into second. Stroll wasn’t so lucky, the Canadian furious on team radio when he was told he missed the cut.
He was joined by the Ferrari duo of Leclerc – who was vocally unhappy on the radio – and Sainz in 11th and 13th, who were split by Williams’ Latifi, and Alonso.
Knocked out: Leclerc, Latifi, Sainz, Alonso, Stroll
Q3 - Russell misses out on fairytale pole as Verstappen snatches top spot
The rain intensified as the start of Q3 approached, with drivers requiring the full wets before venturing out on a sodden track. The conditions were very tricky, with Vettel saying they were so bad, the session should be red flagged.
Norris said there was a bit of aquaplaning while on his out lap but pressed on for his first timed lap. However, the McLaren driver lost the car up the hill to Raidillon and crashed heavily into the barriers, bouncing back onto the track and spinning several times.
Vettel was the first car behind and slowed to a stop to check if Norris was OK. Fortunately, Norris was able to jump out of the car unaided, with the session red-flagged to allow time for the marshals to clear the debris. McLaren later revealed he had been sent to a local hospital after his visit to the trackside medical centre for a precautionary x-ray of his elbow.
With the rain easing, the session eventually got back under way for the final nine minutes, with intermediates the favoured compound choice. With a minute to go, Hamilton went quickest, ahead of the Red Bull duo of Perez and Verstappen.
Bottas slotted into fourth, ahead of Vettel and Gasly with Ricciardo, Ocon and Russell completing the top 10. But they all had one more run to go – and it was Russell who was the first to set the timing sheets alight – sailing into provisional pole.
Hamilton couldn’t beat him and while Verstappen did get ahead, he was the only one who could – meaning Russell – who has long been linked with a seat at Mercedes as a replacement for Bottas next season – held on to a front row grid slot.
Verstappen meanwhile gave Red Bull their first pole at Spa for 10 years in what is their 50th race with engine supplier Honda.
The key quote
“It’s been a really tricky qualifying,” said pole-sitter Verstappen. “It’s hard to keep the car on track, switching the tyres on as well at the right time and also the long break in Q2 and Q3 it’s not easy to settle in and learn the track conditions again. At the end we were first and that’s of course the most important. It’s an amazing track to drive but very challenging in the wet.”
The Belgian Grand Prix kicks off at 1500 local time, which is 1200 UTC. Verstappen has a Williams between him and title rival Hamilton, but does he have the pace and strategy to convert pole into victory?