Lewis Hamilton made it four pole positions in a row as he expertly slithered his Mercedes around a wet Spa-Francorchamps to claim top spot start for the Belgian Grand Prix and trumping the Red Bull pair who had set the pace in earlier practice sessions.
With dark clouds looming over the Ardennes and intermittent rain spitting at random, it was always going to be something of a lottery. The track would either be wet or drying, and at any given time there was a difference of anything between a second or several seconds per lap.
An element of luck was a handy commodity to have on the day, when the chequered flag dropped it was Hamilton fastest, followed by the Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber – they were handed a dollop of ‘luck’ by virtue of an extra lap which made all the difference on the drying track.
Only fifteen minutes earlier Hamilton was fortunate to make the Q2 cut-off time, he was 10th on the timing screens at that point and only into Q3 by a few thousandths of a second.
Q3 was a nail biting affair for all concerned (including fans) as Spa darkened with heavy rain clouds overhead, the top ten filed out nose to tail as soon as the pit exit lights turned green. But the rain was coming down at the far end of the circuit and slicks were useless in the conditions.
Paul di Resta had the presence of mind to bolt on a set of Intermediates and as his rivals peeled in to the pits to discard their slicks, the Force India driver powered around in 2:02.332 which was the benchmark almost until the end. At this point it looked done and dusted, with The Scot netting his first pole as an F1 driver. But it was not to be, instead he would end up fifth.
“I thought the rain was going to stay. It was quite a ballsy decision by myself. I saw umbrellas coming up so I made the right choice. I think it was the right time but our car is not that quick in the wet. It was unfortunate, but P5 is not so bad. In the dry, we’re looking good for the race. If it’s wet, I’d be a bit more nervous,” said Di Resta afterwards.
With everyone on Intermediates, Di Resta’s time was about a second or so to the good but with a couple of minutes to go it became apparent that the track was drying at about a second per lap.
Nico Rosberg was first to bump Di Resta off top spot – Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjan gave it their best shots but failed – then came Webber, with Vettel about a hundred metres behind, and Hamilton also not far off.
The final trio got the benefit of an extra lap, Hamilton only just scraping through for an extra tour – the track still drying and offering about a second a lap – and it was Webber who first topped Rosberg, a few seconds later Vettel dislodged his team mate, who in turn was bumped one down by Hamilton’s pole winning lap.
It was an inspired performance by the Hungarian GP winner, and with it claimed his fourth successive pole, and in the end analysis it was a stupendous lap in trying conditions. He had Vettel to chase on that final attempt, and must have known he was on to a good thing when he slithered onto the home straight much closer to the back of the Red Bull than when he had started the lap two minutes earlier.
The timing sheets show the gap between the top time and second place to be 0.188 seconds up on Vettel, and over a second up on Rosberg – simply Hamilton at his very best.
Hamilton was all smiles as he summed up his efforts, “It was a good job by the team. I was surprised when I came across line. I went wide in Turn One and my dashboard told me I was three seconds down and then it was four seconds and then six so I didn’t know what was going on but I kept pushing. It’s a blessing [that] I am up here. Generally I feel comfortable in changing conditions. I can find the limit and I pushed through the middle sector and really caned it.”
“I haven’t had a good feeling all weekend. I’m not 100% confident we have the fastest package in the dry, but in these conditions, it’s more of a lottery and the driver can make more of a difference. Our radar has forecast [that] it’s going to rain tomorrow, so it’s going to be a tricky race. Trying to choose the right tyre, tyre management and pit stops will be key tomorrow,” added Hamilton who won the 2010 edition of the race in Belgium.
Both Red Bulls have looked the business since Friday, and although they were beaten in this qualifying duel, they will be confident that the RB9 is a handy piece of kit whatever conditions are served up by the temperamental gods of the Ardennes.
Vettel reflected, “It was a tricky session for all of us. When I was on the last lap, I didn’t know how the conditions were on the other side of the track. Once i got there, it was surprisingly dry, therefore it was easy to make big improvement in terms of lap time.”
“So the later you started the lap, the better. Lewis had a fantastic middle sector, I saw him catching up and thought ‘I could have gone quicker here and there’. It was good result for myself. Everything is possible, we expect the rain to be as inconsistent as it was today,” added the world champion.
Webber summed up his day at the office, “In the end, it was a good battle for pole, we were certainly challenging for that. As a drive, you don’t know what sort of lap you’re on until you cross the line in those conditions.”
Although Rosberg was over a second off his teammate’s best time, he will console himself by thinking that if he had an extra lap on the occasion he might have stolen pole. However, he will start from fourth on the grid.
Rosberg said, “It was a tough qualifying and in the end, I just got caught out. You just don’t know what is going to happen, but it’s still possible to do a good race from fourth. The car is good in all conditions.”
McLaren have shown impressive pace in adverse conditions that have afflicted the weekend at Spa, and qualifying played into their hands, particularly Button who was sixth fastest and looking well suited to the wet. Sergio Perez was unable to make it beyond Q2 and will start 13th.
Button was content, “In the dry we were relatively happy with the pace and in the wet it was even better. We deserve our position today as we were very competitive. If it is changeable conditions tomorrow then it will be tricky for all the drivers. I’m pretty happy with P6.”
Row four will be an all Lotus affair with Romain Grosjean seventh and Kimi Raikkonen eighth. The pair never really threatened the pace setters, and have appeared oddly out of sorts this weekend.
Also way lower than they would have been targeting were the Ferrari pair who will share the fifth row, with Fernando Alonso starting from ninth, and Felipe Massa tenth on the grid.
“I think it was the conditions that helped us in Q3. In Q1, with wet conditions we were first. In Q2 in the dry, we were second, so I think the pace is there. We were not maybe to fight for pole, but we were in contention for fourth or fifth. The aim is to win. Anything can happen here. If we manage to pass people in front, we have the pace,” explained Alonso.
If there were a ‘Man of the Match’ in qualifying no doubt Di Resta would have raised his hand to claim the fictitious award. But Giedo van der Garde will get it this time around. The Dutchman is getting a bad rap in his rookie season, however he came of age in qualifying at Spa.
Van der Garde was the first to bolt on slicks in Q1, long before anyone else he took the gamble and at first it seemed a bad call as he squirmed around about seven seconds off the pace. Credit to Van der garde though, for not throwing in the towel at the end of that lap. He continued and by the end of the session was third quickest in the Caterham.
In Q2 he gave a good account of himself and will start 14th on the grid. Top marks for a job well done by the much maligned rookie.
“It was a good call from me and the team. It’s the best qualifying position for me and also well clear of Marussia, so I’m very happy. It’s like a home race for me, lots of Dutch fans, so let’s see tomorrow, the weather you never know what it’ll produce,” was Van der Garde’s contented summary of his afternoon.
Q1 was cruel to Williams and the Toro Rosso pair, an early shower for the quartet who would have been expecting to be playing a little longer in the rain than actually did, especially considering that both Marussia drivers and a Caterham progressed.
Ricciardo commented, “As far as I am aware, we went out with the second set of intermediates too early. We should have waited but I trust the guys in the pit to make the best call. I am disappointed, but tomorrow’s another day.”
Final word to Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn: “You try and put things in place and it’s really up to the drivers to see if they can make the most of it. We were just on the limit of being the last car. It did work out for us and with the track drying, Lewis did a great job. He really is settling in well to the team. All our team is gelling very well. I’m not sure we’ve seen all of it yet.” (GP247)
Subbed by AJN.
Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying – 24 August 2013
|2||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing-Renault||2:01.863||1:48.646||2:01.200||19|
|3||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing-Renault||2:01.597||1:48.641||2:01.325||20|
|5||14||Paul di Resta||Force India-Mercedes||2:02.338||1:48.925||2:02.332||22|
|12||15||Adrian Sutil||Force India-Mercedes||2:02.749||1:49.103||17|
|14||21||Giedo van der Garde||Caterham-Renault||2:00.564||1:52.036||15|
|Q1 107% Time||2:08.603|