Max Verstappen dominated qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix but Carlos Sainz will start from pole after an intriguing Saturday afternoon at Spa-Francorchamps.
Verstappen, title rival Charles Leclerc and five other drivers started qualifying carrying heavy grid penalties for power unit changes that will send them to the back of the grid.
The battle for pole therefore came down to a fight between Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez, but neither was on Verstappen’s level. The Dutchman beat his would-be rivals by 0.6s with his first lap. It was a large enough margin that he didn’t bother to set a second time.
Sainz and Perez slotted into second and third ahead of Leclerc, with whom Ferrari took a different tack, deploying the penalized Monegasque to generate a slipstream for his teammate to try to guarantee pole.
The plan didn’t work – Leclerc joined from pit lane too late and had to hand position to his teammate partway down the Kemmel Straight – but Perez couldn’t improve with his second attempt either, handing pole position to Sainz.
With grid penalties applied…
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It was the second pole of Sainz’s career, though the Spaniard was relatively subdued in acknowledgement of Ferrari’s significant pace deficit.
“I’m happy to be starting from pole,” Sainz said. “Obviously not so happy to see the gap to Max this weekend and the gap that Red Bull has on us.
“We need to keep digging to see why Red Bull was so fast on this track and why we are trailing them.
“I think our race pace is a bit better than our quali pace, but there’s certainly something to find.”
Perez sounded disappointed on team radio not to have had Verstappen tow him on their second laps, but the Mexican was happy enough to start on the front row, from where drivers typically benefit from the slipstream of the pole-getter on the first lap.
“P2 is not the worst place to be around here,” he said. “It will be very important to get a good start and try to do out own race from the beginning.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I think there will be a great race ahead of us.”
Verstappen and Leclerc will start 15th and 16th on tomorrow’s grid.
The title leader was buoyed by his car’s dominance and forecast that a podium was his minimum objective.
Esteban Ocon was fifth quickest ahead of teammate Fernando Alonso, but the Frenchman will start 17th with power unit penalties. Alonso will start fourth.
Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were a despondent seventh and eighth for Mercedes, 1.8s and 2.1s off the pace respectively. They’ll start fourth and fifth on the grid.
Alex Albon had a sensational run through qualifying for Williams to end the session ninth fastest, and the Thai driver will line up sixth behind the Mercedes pair.
Lando Norris was 10th but will drop to 18th with penalties.
The Briton made it through to Q3 despite using his second Q2 run to give teammate Daniel Ricciardo a slipstream. It wasn’t enough to help the Australian penetrate the pointy end of qualifying, though Ricciardo will start seventh after the grid drops are accounted for.
Pierre Gasly will start alongside him in eighth after qualifying 12th, with Lance Stroll being promoted to ninth from 14th.
Zhou Guanyu and Mick Schumacher qualified 13th and 15th but will start 19th and 20th with engine penalties.
Sebastian Vettel was knocked out 16th by a superb Albon at the death of Q1, missing the cut by just 0.002s. Albon’s Willams teammate Nicholas Latifi was 17th in the second Williams ahead of Kevin Magnussen in 18th.
Yuki Tsunoda ruined his final flying lap with a massive lock-up at the final chicane, leaving him 19th in the order.
Valtteri Bottas was 20th for Alfa Romeo but will start 14th, despite carrying a 20-place grid penalty.
The Finn will be promoted ahead of six drivers who received back-of-grid penalties through a quirk in the rules regarding the accrual of grid-place penalties.
Vettel, Latifi, Magnussen and Tsunoda will move ahead of Bottas into places 10 to 13 respectively owing to those penalties.