SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS: Nico Rosberg boosted his hopes of regaining control of the world championship on Saturday when he claimed pole position for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.
Taking full advantage of his championship-leading Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s multiple grid penalties, that have consigned him to the back of the grid, the 31-year-old German delivered a well-judged performance to complete a hat-trick of poles.
It was Rosberg’s fifth pole this season and the 28th of his career - and gives him a great chance to reduce, or even overhaul, Hamilton’s 19-point lead in the drivers’ title race.
Dutch teenager and local hero Max Verstappen was second to become the youngest front-row starter in Formula One history ahead of Finn Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari.
Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel was fourth in the second Ferrari ahead of Australian Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull.
Sergio Perez was sixth ahead of his Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, Finn Valtteri Bottas of Williams, Jenson Button of McLaren-Honda and Felipe Massa in the second Williams.
“Thank you guys,” said Rosberg, while talking to his team on his slowdown lap. “Awesome recovery and a really good job done.”
The session began in continuing sweltering conditions with an air temperature of 36 degrees Celsius and the track at 44 degrees - utterly unexpected by tyre suppliers Pirelli and many of the teams.
In a demonstration of their strict application of the track limits, the stewards swiftly deleted the early Q1 laps of Felipe Nasr and Kevin Magnussen after both ran off-road.
Fernando Alonso’s troubled weekend continued when, having collected a 35-place grid penalty for taking a new power unit, he suffered a car failure without clocking a lap time.
He was already destined to join Hamilton at the back of the grid, the defending champion having collected a 55-place grid penalty for taking three power units.
Out with them went Swede Marcus Ericsson, who also has a 10-place penalty, Russian Daniil Kvyat and French debutant Esteban Ocon.
All of this meant that Briton Jolyon Palmer managed to squeeze his Renault through to Q2 for the second consecutive race and Hamilton, with a broad smile, faced the media as an early departee.
“It could be fun,” he said. “I’ve never qualified 18th before, but in this heat, it could be the wrong time to take these penalties as the tyres will be gone so quickly, but it is what it is.”
He added that the super-soft tyres were “terrible – and they only last three laps... So, it won’t be cool and easy breezy at all.”
As Hamilton chatted to reporters before going to feed his dogs and relax, Rosberg went out and set the pace in Q2 ahead of Verstappen and Hulkenberg, while a strong lap from Button meant the elimination of both Haas drivers Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez in 11th and 13th places.
The Renault duo of Magnussen and Palmer also departed, along with Carlos Sainz and German Pascal Wehrlein, who qualified in an impressive 16th place.
Notably, Rosberg, Raikkonen, Vettel and Ricciardo all went through on the ‘soft’ tyre, meaning that will be the rubber they use to start Sunday’s race rather than the fragile super-soft.
The top-10 shootout began with Bottas leading the way. He was overhauled by Perez before Vettel went top, only to be replaced by Verstappen.
The local hero’s joy was also short-lived, however, as Rosberg outpaced him by one-tenth on his first run.
Raikkonen’s first flying lap included an excursion at Stavelot, where he slid wide and into a gravel trap. It left him without a time ahead of the drama of the final runs in the closing minutes.