With Lewis Hamilton already resigned to starting his Mercedes from the back thanks to engine penalties, it was the Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel who locked out the second row ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the sister Red Bull, setting up the prospect of a thrilling race on Sunday.
Next up were the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg. The Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, split by the McLaren of Jenson Button, completed the top 10. Both Williams were affected by engine software issues, which meant they were unable to run in qualifying mode.
Massa had surprised everyone, Ferrari included, by jumping ahead off Vettel and Raikkonen to top the opening Q1 session with 1m 47.738s. Rosberg was fourth, but well within striking range as he had used soft tyres and all of his main rivals were on supersofts. Further back, Felipe Nasr’s 1m 48.949s for Sauber wasn’t quite enough, leaving him 17th ahead of debutant Esteban Ocon in the Manor on 1m 49.050s, Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso on 1m 49.058s and Marcus Ericsson’s 1m 49.091s in the second Sauber.
Hamilton stuck to softs for 1m 50.033s which was well within the 107 percent rule, as he focused on getting his car right for the race, which of course he must start from the back row.
Fernando Alonso was last in this session, without a time, as his McLaren stopped on the approach to Eau Rouge on its out lap. With his own 30-place penalty that was not quite the disaster it might otherwise have been.
Rosberg set the Q2 pace with 1m 46.999s on soft tyres, with Verstappen right behind with 1m 47.163s, though the Dutchman ran the supersofts and will thus have to start on them. Both Ferrari drivers had a go on supersofts late on, but chose to abort those laps, hence they too can start on the yellow-marked rubber, along with Ricciardo.
A late blast from Jenson Button put his McLaren 10th, leaving Haas’s Romain Grosjean on 1m 48.316s as the first Q2 faller, ahead of Kevin Magnussen on 1m 48.485s for Renault, Gutierrez - carrying a five-place grid penalty for impeding in FP3 - on 1m 48.558s in the sister Haas and Jolyon Palmer on 1m 48.888s in the second Renault. Carlos Sainz was 15th for Toro Rosso on 1m 49.038s, with Pascal Wehrlein 16th for Manor on 1m 49.320s.
Rosberg going fastest with 1m 46.744s was hardly a surprise after the first runs in Q3, but Verstappen’s 1m 46.893s really was sensational, given he had missed the bulk of FP3 with gearbox issues, and must have set hearts fluttering at Mercedes. Neither improved on their second runs, but the only one to get close was Raikkonen. Having fallen off at Stavelot on his first run, which he aborted, the Finn made amends with 1m 46.910s to push Ricciardo out of the third place; the Australian had lapped in 1m 47.216s. Then Vettel, complaining that the rear end had lost all grip by the end of the lap, edged the second Red Bull down another place with his 1m 47.108s.
Behind the top five, Perez finally overcame Force India team mate Hulkenberg to take sixth with 1m 47.407s to 1m 47.543s. The aforementioned software issues (which Williams say won’t be a problem for the race) meant Bottas couldn’t reproduce his previous form and neither could Massa; they lined up eighth on 1m 47.612s and 10th on 1m 48.263s respectively, sandwiching Button on 1m 48.114s.
The stage is thus set for a fascinating race tomorrow. Rosberg, Raikkonen, Vettel and Ricciardo will all start on the more durable soft Pirellis, but it will be interesting to see what Verstappen can do on the supersofts. And don’t forget Hamilton, trying to charge from the back while steering clear of trouble…
With the various penalties applied, the provisional grid currently reads as: Rosberg, Verstappen; Raikkonen, Vettel; Ricciardo, Perez; Hulkenberg, Bottas; Button, Massa; Grosjean, Magnussen; Palmer, Sainz; Wehrlein, Nasr; Ocon, Gutierrez; Kvyat, Ericsson; Hamilton, Alonso.