Max Verstappen has denied George Russell a surprise pole position in a wet mixed up qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. The Red Bull driver went three tenths faster than the Williams in difficult conditions, the Dutchman looking to pull it together on the final lap.
Pole gives Verstappen a boost as he heads into the race eight points behind Hamilton in the championship, and he now has an opportunity to make amends after a difficult two races in Britain and Hungary.
Russell had taken pole, but again like in Sakhir last year was denied in the closing seconds of Q3 but managed to out-qualify Lewis Hamilton, who he is expected to partner next year by just over a hundredth of a second. Verstappen had looked quick in practice and was three tenths faster than championship rival Hamilton.
Russell had taken a surprise provisional pole after Hamilton failed to improve on his last lap, while the Williams driver set two personal bests to go seven-thousandths of a second faster. That was before Verstappen went under the two-minute mark for the first time in Q3.
Russell’s second place gives Williams their first front-row since Monza 2017, and his first front-row since standing in for Hamilton in Sakhir last December. He told reporters “I thought we would have been doing a good job to get out of Q1 after yesterday, now we’re standing on the front row.”
One of the big questions going into the race is whether as customers of Mercedes do Russell and Daniel Ricciardo was seven-tenths behind Hamilton in fourth, as well as Sebastian Vettel in fifth, help Hamilton in fighting Verstappen in the race.
But it looked to be Ricciardo’s teammate Lando Norris who would steal the limelight. Mixed conditions had seen him go fastest in Q1 and Q2 making him a serious contender for pole position, however got caught out at Raidillon at the start of Q3.
Norris looked to correct a snap of oversteer through the exit of Eau Rouge sent his car spearing left and into the barriers side-on just before Raidillon and the top of the hill. That resulted in him being spun into the barriers serval times before stopping at the side of the track. That lead to a forty-minute delay before the session was restarted.
Norris was able to get out of the crashed car unaided and told the team over the radio he was OK. He was taken to the circuit’s medical centre for mandatory check-ups and has now gone to hospital for a precautionary X-ray on his elbow. But has been given the all clear.
Team principal Andreas Seidl told the media, “The checks were done in the hospital, also on his elbow that was hurting a bit. Everything is good, and he’s good to be back racing tomorrow.”
“The most important thing is Lando is okay, now our focus is on getting the car ready for tomorrow. Knowing that Lando is in top form hopefully we can get back into a position to score points with him.”
McLaren confirmed on Sunday morning Norris would take a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change meaning he starts fourteenth.
Verstappen said: “It has been a really tricky qualifying. It has ben hard to keep the car on track. And then the long break between Q2 and Q3 it is not easy to settle in again. It is an amazing track to drive but very challenging in the wet.”
Russell added, “I was in the fortunate position that I had nothing to lose. We just had to go for it. We saved the full maximum engine mode for the last lap, but buzzing, absolutely buzzing. But tomorrow is the important one.”
Mercedes was also the main story in Q2, sending both Hamilton and Bottas out on used wet tyres, seeing both drivers at risk of being pushed out. They had to go again, but both improved on the new set of inters at the end of the session to get through to the top ten shoot out.
Aston Martin’s Vettel was fifth but witnessed the accident for Norris leaving him fuming that the session was going ahead. Pierre Gasly was sixth two tenths behind the German, but the Alpha Tauri driver going almost a second faster than Sergio Perez.
Valtteri Bottas was eighth fastest going a second faster than Esteban Ocon, while Norris’s accident left him classified in tenth. However, it’s almost certain the McLaren faces a back of the grid start following his crash in Q3. Bottas takes a five-place grid penalty following the opening lap collision at the last race in Budapest.
Ferrari was expected to struggle with Charles Leclerc being knocked out in Q2 after Ricciardo improved. The Monacan failing to string together a lap as the conditions changed at the end of Q2, his teammate Carlos Sainz thirteenth ahead of Fernando Alonso.
While Russell will get the headlines, it was also a decent session for his Williams teammate Nicolas Latifi who was twelfth. A performance that would normally be a good result for the team at this type of circuit, but the focus will be on the Englishman.
Lance Stroll was fifteenth slowest of the cars knocked out in Q2, but the Aston Martin driver also takes a five-place grid penalty following the second opening lap collision at the last race in Budapest.
Antonio Giovinazzi was fastest of those knocked out in Q1 going just over a tenth faster than the Alpha Tauri of Yuki Tsunoda. Mick Schumacher going eighteenth, the Haas driver deciding not to complete what looked to be his fastest lap, but stayed eight hundredths ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, Nikita Mazepin twentieth.