After a season of remarkable dominance Lewis Hamilton had to accept that he has yet to quite banish all human frailty from a relentlessly successful driving career. Beaten to pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Hamilton did well to take third, behind Sebastian Vettel after the British driver made a hugely uncharacteristic error in final practice and crashed out.
Any celebrations were short-lived, however, after the major accident in the F2 race immediately afterwards, which resulted in the death of the French driver Anthoine Hubert and the abandonment of that race.
The tragedy will overshadow whatever happens in the Formula One race but earlier Leclerc had been rightly thrilled at his first pole at Spa-Francorchamps and he deserved to revel in his achievement. Both his quick laps in the final session were magnificently executed as he pushed the Ferrari’s outright power advantage to the maximum. Vettel simply could not match his teammate.
Hamilton in contrast was left almost relieved that he and Mercedes had managed to salvage what was in the end an impressive third. He has eight wins from 12 races this season, and a 62-point lead over his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who was in fourth here in front of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. A sixth title looks all but in Hamilton’s grasp, yet for all that he has been consistent, relentless and at time sublime this season, he warned early in the week he was taking nothing for granted.
It was a timely concern it transpires. He had made two mistakes in Germany, hitting the barriers and later spinning off. In final practice in Belgium he made a third. Such has been the quality of his driving when his high standards fail it is perhaps even more noticeable.
He said: “My track record has been pretty good but it sometimes happens. It is frustrating and never feels good whether you are in your first or 13th year. But you can always learn from it, there is always a silver lining, an opportunity to pick yourself up to rebuild. There is always an experience with your guys. It was a massive challenge for the team and they did an exceptional job and I was happy with the job I did in qualifying.”
He crashed heavily at turn 12 during the final practice session, sustaining damage to the nose of his car. He had lost the rear as he turned in on the outside kerb of the Fagnes chicane. The team had to work flat out to ready it for qualifying but the British driver had lost track time and not looked wholly comfortable on track all weekend. He remained optimistic however that he could challenge in the race despite Ferrari’s apparent advantage.
In stark contrast Leclerc had been absolutely on it, all weekend, quickest in two of the three practice sessions and all three periods of qualifying. He had the measure of the circuit to such an extent that he was almost untouchable. He set a blistering first lap in Q3 with a 1min 42.644sec run, a full six-tenths clear of Hamilton in second but went on to better it on his second run. His ultimate pole time was 1:42.519.
Vettel improved from third to second on his second lap, but was a full seven-tenths behind his teammate, while Hamilton was just two-hundredths behind the German. Ferrari still look to have a definitive advantage going into Sunday’s race.
Leclerc’s third career pole position is his second in five races after he took the top spot in Austria. It continues an impressive start for the 21-year-old in his first season for Ferrari and only his second in Formula One.
He has been close to a maiden F1 win already this season. He led for much of the race in Austria only to be denied by a charging Verstappen and was also close in Bahrain, where he had dominated until a mechanical problem relegated him to third. He has had the edge over Vettel at various meetings this season and will desperately want to finally convert this pole to victory.
The pole also represents reason for cautious optimism for Ferrari after they have struggled so badly to match Mercedes thus far. Last year Ferrari were in a far stronger position, with a car that was closing toward the peak of its performance. This year’s model has not been nearly so effective, if Leclerc can take victory it will be Ferrari’s first win of the season and finally reason to celebrate at the Scuderia.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was in sixth with his teammate Nico Hülkenberg in seventh. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen was in eighth in front of Sergio Pérez in the Racing Point and Kevin Magnussen in the Haas.
The London-born Thai driver Alexander Albon, on his debut drive for Red Bull having been promoted to the team from Toro Rosso over the summer break, will start from the back of the grid for taking new power unit components. Red Bull consequently opted to save his tyres and he did not push in Q2 finishing in 14th.
Lando Norris finished in 12th for McLaren, behind the Haas of Romain Grosjean and in front of Lance Stroll’s Racing Point.
Robert Kubica had an engine failure in Q1, the second new-specification Mercedes engine to fail this weekend, which will cause concern at the works team, and finished in 20th. His Williams teammate George Russell was in 19th.
Antonio Giovinazzi also appeared to suffer an engine failure in Q1 but because he was through to Q2 he finished in 15th. Pierre Gasly was in 16th for Toro Rosso, with his teammate Daniil Kvyat in 18th. Carlos Sainz finished in 17th for McLaren, denied his final hot lap due to Giovinazzi stopping on track.
Kvyat and Stroll will start from the back of the grid having taken grid penalties for replacement power unit components, while Ricciardo, Hülkenberg and Sainz all have five-place penalties for taking new engines.