Max Verstappen delivered a scintillating lap for his ‘orange army’ of fans on Saturday to dominate an unusual qualifying session for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix with the world champion all too aware he could not take pole position for Red Bull after a grid penalty.
The 24-year-old runaway leader of this year’s title race clocked a fastest time of one minute and 43.665 seconds round the long and spectacular Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
It left Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz gasping in pursuit with a lap in 1:44.297, yet he took pole position, ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull, on a topsy-turvy afternoon.
Seven drivers faced grid penalties after new power-unit components, or gearboxes, were fitted to their cars. That meant their efforts in qualifying had no impact on the front of the grid.
Four of them – Verstappen, his title rival Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and McLaren’s Lando Norris — were in the top 10 shootout, but will start 15th, 16th and further back.
For Verstappen, whose speed dismayed his rivals, it raised the prospect of a classic charge through the field on Sunday with Leclerc in pursuit.
“It was an amazing session,” said the 24-year-old Dutchman. “But the whole weekend we’ve been on it. The car is working well and it all came together.
“Of course, I had to be careful with the tyres I was using, knowing I am starting down the back, but we need to move forward. It will be a shame not be on the podium, especially with a car like this!
“I enjoyed the lap and I hope all the spectators here, the fans, did too.”
Sainz admitted he was not happy to be so comprehensively outpaced by Verstappen, a feeling shared by Leclerc who qualified fourth behind Perez, in the second Red Bull. The Monegasque driver starts 16th.
“When you see the gap to Max, it is a bit worrying,” he said. “They are extremely quick and we need to find something this weekend. The Red Bulls are way too fast now and there is nothing we could have done.”
‘Kick in the teeth’
With Verstappen starting on the eighth row, Perez hopes to capitalise with a strong start.
“P2 is not the worst place to be around here and if I get a good run, it can be different and I can be on the other side of the road,” said Perez.
With a mixed-up grid, seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton may also have a chance to attack from fourth, alongside Fernando Alonso of Alpine, but like the Ferrari drivers he was unhappy with his relative speed and performance.
“We came here with so much optimism,” he said of his Mercedes team.
“But to be 1.8 seconds behind Max and the Red Bull, it’s a kick in the teeth. We continue to struggle with this car and right now we have to concentrate on designing something better for next year.”
His Mercedes team-mate George Russell, who qualified eighth, but starts fifth, was equally downbeat.
“I struggle to comprehend how you’re on pole at the last race and 1.8 seconds off today and not obviously just to Max, but we were six-tenths behind the Alpines too,” he said.
“We always struggle when the temperatures are cold and we can’t get the tyres working. So, it’s pretty frustrating.”
The session was delayed by 25 minutes for barrier repairs, following an incident during an earlier supporting Porsche Supercup qualifying session.
Eventually, in cool conditions, under and overcast sky, qualifying got under way, with red-hot Verstappen dominating to suggest a third straight win is by no means out of the question following his charge from 10th to the chequered flag in Hungary before the summer break.
One of those eliminated after the second session was McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, who is in search of new employers next season after being let go by his team with a season left on his contract.
The closing 10 minute shoot-out began with another Ferrari blunder as Leclerc sent out on new tyres. “It’s a mistake,” the team admitted on his radio channel before asking him to push anyway.
He went fourth behind Verstappen, Sainz and Perez, knowing he and the Dutchman’s efforts, and those of Norris and Ocon, were more for the crowd’s enjoyment than grid positions.