SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium, (Reuters) – Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel charged to pole position at the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday after denying McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton the top slot in the final seconds of qualifying.
In a wet and eventful session, the 24-year-old German secured Red Bull’s 13th pole in a row and his ninth of the season.
Vettel’s Australian team mate Mark Webber, celebrating his 35th birthday with a new one-year contract, will line up third and alongside Ferrari’s Brazilian Felipe Massa.
“Not an easy session with the conditions changing…tomorrow they say it is dry but I think here anything is possible,” said Vettel, who leads Webber by 85 points with eight races remaining but has been beaten in the last three.
Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher, who made his debut at the circuit 20 years ago, had a nightmare afternoon and failed to set a time in the first phase after a rear wheel worked loose and he skidded his Mercedes into the wall.
Hamilton, winner at Spa last year, found himself in the middle of another controversy after clashing with Williams’ Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado in the second phase of qualifying.
Maldonado was given a five-place penalty by stewards, who included Hamilton’s compatriot and former champion Nigel Mansell, for causing a collision. Hamilton was reprimanded.
Video footage indicated the Williams had chopped across the McLaren, damaging Hamilton’s front wing.
That looked like payback, despite Maldonado’s denials, for Hamilton making contact on the inside of the last corner as the Briton forced his way through to cross the line before the session ended.
“It was done deliberately,” Hamilton said over the team radio of Maldonado’s actions before McLaren fitted a new front wing and patched up the car.
“I think it was quite serious and just fortunate that neither of us, particularly him, was flipped into a big crash,” Hamilton added later.
The two racers had also clashed at Monaco earlier in the year, with Hamilton tipping Maldonado into the tyre barriers when the Venezuelan was heading for his first points finish.
Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button, winner in Hungary before the summer break, was left in 13th place on the grid after a McLaren ‘misunderstanding’.
The 2009 champion was unaware he had only two laps rather than three and was preparing for his last attempt when the team told him to pit.
“That is massively disappointing and a huge shock,” he said. “A big mistake on our part. In every practice session we’ve been in top three. Tough being back in 13th but we’ve got to deal with it.”
Schumacher’s hopes of a first podium since his comeback last season suffered a major setback with the 42-year-old facing a back-row start.
“I’ve had some experience on three wheels before but to lose a rear wheel is a bit more difficult to handle,” he said before a paddock celebration of his career milestone with beer and sausages in the Mercedes motorhome.
“Initially I didn’t know I’d lost a rear wheel. There is no reason to blame anybody, we all try our best but at the end of the day we are all humans. I’ve had some interesting races from the back so it’s going to be entertaining.”
Brazilian Bruno Senna made an impressive start to his first race weekend with Renault, qualifying seventh and ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in eighth place.
Senna’s Russian team mate Vitaly Petrov qualified 10th.
It will be a dream come true to finish in the points tomorrow,” Senna, nephew of the late triple champion Ayrton, told reporters.
Force India’s British rookie Paul di Resta was another casualty of the first session after spinning on his flying lap.
Both the HRTs and Virgin Racing’s Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio were cleared to race by the stewards despite failing to meet the 107 percent qualifying threshold, along with Schumacher.
The second phase of qualifying was halted briefly after Force India’s Adrian Sutil spun and skidded into the tyre wall at the top of Eau Rouge.