SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium: Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg has clinched pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix ahead of 18-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen, while championship leader Lewis Hamilton will start Sunday’s race from the back of the grid.
Cheered on by a large contingent of Dutch fans, Verstappen beat Sebastian Vettel’s leading time to move into contention, only for Rosberg to beat Verstappen’s mark and clinch his 28th career pole.
“We got the job done,” said Rosberg, who is second behind Hamilton in the Formula One standings. “I’m happy to be on pole. The tires are going to be difficult, though, there will be a lot going on.”
Rosberg, who now has a great chance to close the 19-point gap on Hamilton, was more than a little relieved — especially as the hot weather conditions made it more difficult for Mercedes.
“We just weren’t quick, it is hot and Pirelli (tire) pressures are high this weekend,” said Rosberg, who will be aiming for a 20th GP win. “It’s a different world out there.”
As the unusually high temperatures reached 34 degrees Celsius (93 F), Verstappen did not disappoint some 20,000 Dutch fans in the sun-soaked crowd, missing out on pole by just .149 of a second.
“In front of all my fans, it’s such a great motivation,” Verstappen said. “To be so close to Nico on a track with long straights, we can be very pleased with that.”
After becoming the youngest winner of an F1 race with a brilliant victory in Spain earlier this season, Verstappen is now the youngest driver to qualify on the front row of the grid.
“It’s great to break records, but I want to break other records,” he said in the matter-of-fact style that underlines his cool temperament.
The previous youngest was Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez, who qualified second for Ferrari at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, aged 19.
Kimi Raikkonen — who is twice Verstappen’s age — qualified .166 behind Rosberg in third, getting ahead of Vettel right at the end. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo — who is now playing second fiddle to Verstappen — starts the race from fifth spot.
Vettel has not won a race since the Singapore GP last September and the four-time F1 champion appears increasingly frustrated, having berated Danish driver Kevin Magnussen’s driving during the third and final practice in the morning.
“It’s all (in) the last corner,” an unhappy Vettel said after qualifying. “Lost it all again, the traction, the grip.”
Rosberg, runner-up to Hamilton in the past two seasons, won the opening four races of the campaign as Hamilton struggled with the ongoing mechanical problems that led to this weekend’s grid penalties.
The penalties increased to a notional 55 places — in a field of only 22 cars — after Mercedes had further engine changes on Saturday, following those made in Friday’s practice.
Grid penalties apply only to the race weekend itself and do not carry over into the next race,
With nothing to gain, Hamilton did only four laps early in qualifying before rolling into the team garage.
The three-time F1 champion will start last, and with very little chance of securing his 50th win, but with some illustrious company.
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso is also on the back row for McLaren, having taken a 35-place hit for engine changes.
Given their situation, it made no sense for either Hamilton or Alonso to qualify for the second part of qualifying.
The others failing to reach Q2 were Esteban Ocon — on his F1 debut for the Manor team — Felipe Nasr, Marcus Ericsson and Daniil Kvyat.
Romain Grosjean, Magnussen, Esteban Gutierrez, Jolyon Palmer, Carlos Sainz and Pascal Wehrlein all went out in Q2, with McLaren’s Jenson Button just sneaking into the top 10 for Q3.
In the morning’s final practice, Raikkonen was fastest ahead of Ricciardo, while Verstappen stayed in the garage with a gearbox problem.
With track temperatures already reaching 30 C (86 F) by late morning, Wehrlein lost his cool. The Manor driver employed some strong language when blaming Gutierrez for forcing him onto the grass.
Stewards handed Gutierrez, who drives for the U.S.-backed Haas team, a five-place grid penalty after reviewing the incident.