Jenson Button claimed his first McLaren pole position in dominant fashion today with a spectacular performance in Spa to head an unexpected top three ahead of Kamui Kobayashi and Pastor Maldonado.
But hours after the session ended, stewards took Maldonado’s fastest time away for an impeding incident in Q1 on Hulkenberg. It moves Kimi Raikkonen, who was also quizzed by stewards for leaving the circuit boundary with all four wheels, up to third, with Perez fourth.
In Button’s 50th Grand Prix for McLaren he set two laps fast enough for pole and finished the session 3/10ths faster than anybody. The Briton, using a new rear wing, showed his potential early on in qualifying with the fastest hard tyre run in Q1, a significant advantage in Q2 and two immaculate laps in the top ten shootout.
“I’m surprised that the new rear wing is working so well, but the engineers also did a great job with the balance,” said Button. “And it’s even more encouraging that we had good consistency through all three qualifying sessions. Nonetheless, nobody has done any long runs yet, so we still need to wait and see how tomorrow pans out.
“Can I still win the drivers’ championship? Yes. We’ll take it one day at a time, but hopefully we can get some good points tomorrow.”
He has the pace, but has been hard on his tyres in races this season and tomorrow’s race is all about whether he has been able to fix that. Kobayashi and Sauber have good pace and look after the tyres and have profited from Button’s higher degradation before.
So they provide a threat, as does Raikkonen in the Lotus, starting in third. If Raikkonen can get ahead of Kobayashi at the start he can take advantage of any problems with Button’s higher tyre use it should be a fascinating end to the race.
In turn, Raikkonen’s threat comes from Alonso, who has better straight line speeds. Alonso has to get ahead of Raikkonen at the start as the Lotus will get away in the middle sector of the lap and it will be hard for Alonso. In that scenario he may have to use strategy to gain places. THe Ferrari has looked good all weekend, despite not quite having the pace in qualifying.
Strategy will be vital; at present the hard tyre looks like it could end up being the better race tyre. It was superior to the soft tyre in Silverstone and the same could be the case with the medium tomorrow. Two stops is the fastest way, but there are some teams considering doing one stop.
Lewis Hamilton went for a higher downforce set up than his team mate, hoping to gain an advantage in the middle sector as Raikkonen did, which is downforce dependant. It didn’t work out, he wasn’t fast enough and lost 0.4s on the straights and it’s probably a less ideal set up for racing than Button’s. It will be hard to make progress.
Kobayashi becomes the first Japanese driver to begin on the front row of a Grand Prix since Takuma Sato in 2004. The Sauber was strong from the outset and Sergio Perez’s improved starting position puts them in a strong position to claim podiums and a large haul of points tomorrow.
Despite his penalty, Maldonado produced his best qualifying position since the Spanish GP and has piled further pressure on Bruno Senna, who could only get his Williams in to 17th place and behind the two Toro Rosso cars.
Throughout the session it had looked to be coming down to a Button-Raikkonen battle for pole and this remained the story in the final phase of qualifying until Raikkonen failed to improve during his second run. This means that, significantly, Button has a buffer ahead of his championship rivals with Alonso (6th), Webber (7th) and Hamilton (8th) all unable to compete with his pace.
Alonso, the pacesetter in practice this morning, could not build on this. But starting ahead of his main championship rivals leaves him in a very good position for tomorrow. He and Webber, who has a five-place gearbox penalty, had struggled to match the pace of Button in Q2 and opted for just a single tyre run in order to save a set of options for race day.
Vettel was just 2/10ths slower than Webber in Q2, but that amounted to seven positions and he missed out on a top ten place by 1/100th of a second.
Romain Grosjean and Paul Di Resta completed the top ten and they will have opposite emotions following the session. Grosjean just sneaked into Q2 after he hit traffic in Q1 and used up a set of options in the process. And with Lotus as many peoples tip for the win this weekend they will be disappointed to once again not have the qualifying pace to give them that platform. Di Resta, however, was impressive throughout and was happy to claim the bragging rights over Nico Hulkenberg. Di Resta will move up to ninth after Webber’s penalty.
Michael Schumacher in his 300th GP did his best but the Mercedes again wasn’t fast enough. He was 13th with Nico Rosberg only 18th. The team were once again struggling with tyre issues and will be hoping for either rain or chaos to claim a decent amount of points.
[Additional reporting: Matt Meadows]
BELGIAN GRAND PRIX, Spa Francorchamps, Qualifying
1. Jenson Button McLaren 1m47.573s
2. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1m47.871s + 0.298s
3. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m47.893s + 0.320s *
4. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m48.205s + 0.632s
5. Sergio Perez Sauber 1m48.219s + 0.646s
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m48.313s + 0.740s
7. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m48.392s + 0.819s **
8. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1m48.394s + 0.821s
9. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m48.538s + 0.965s
10. Paul di Resta Force India 1m48.890s + 1.317s
11. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m49.722s + 0.472s
12. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m49.362s + 0.112s
13. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m49.742s + 0.492s
14. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m49.588s + 0.338s
15. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m49.763s + 0.513s
16. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m49.572s + 0.322s
17. Bruno Senna Williams 1m49.958s + 0.708s
18. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m50.181s + 1.188s**
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m51.739s + 2.746s
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m51.967s + 2.974s
21. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m52.336s + 3.343s
22. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m53.030s + 4.037s
23. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m53.493s + 4.500s
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m54.989s + 5.996s
* = 3 place penalty for blocking Hulkenberg
** = 5 Place gearbox penalty