Max Verstappen recovered from a near-miss in Q2 to take a dominant P1 finish in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, but it will be Charles Leclerc who starts on pole on Sunday.
Verstappen squeezed through Q2 in 10th place on a rapidly improving track at Spa-Francorchamps, leaving him to have a heated exchange with race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase – before apologising as he went quickest by a whopping eight tenths of a second come the end of Q3.
A five-place grid penalty for the World Championship leader was confirmed by the FIA, who will line up sixth on Sunday, with Leclerc and Sergio Perez to make up the front row, ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz.
Daniel Ricciardo loses out in Q1 with track limits deletion
After FP1 was interrupted by rain and the first flying laps from Formula 2 qualifying counted the most as the rain returned before the Formula 1 cars were back out on track, the start of Q1 was delayed by 10 minutes as the track dried.
Both Mercedes and Alfa Romeo drivers queued at the end of the pit lane for more than six minutes as they looked to make the most of the conditions in what was bright sunshine at Spa-Francorchamps, though intermediate tyres were very much the order of the day as spray flew into the air as the cars drove around.
But as confidence grew, the drivers looked to push the limits and there was a hairy moment for Lando Norris as he pushed on the exit of Stavelot, running into the gravel and bouncing through it – prompting concerns at McLaren that he may have had front wing damage.
Given Spa is the longest circuit of the season, they could not break the two-minute barrier through most of Q1, with last year’s polesitter Carlos Sainz being the first to do so on a 1:59.844, before Max Verstappen blitzed clear on a 1:58.932.
But as ever in Q1, it was about losing the slowest five drivers and with track conditions improving all the time, it was all about the final times across the line.
The order kept reshuffling and the ones to lose out were Nico Hulkenberg, who was delayed leaving his garage with a hydraulic issue and could not cross the line in time, with Daniel Ricciardo – whose quickest lap was good enough for P10 overall, but was deleted for exceeding track limits at Raidillon – and Logan Sargeant, Zhou Guanyu and Alex Albon were also eliminated.
Max Verstappen squeezes through in Q2
Oscar Piastri reported on team radio at the start of Q2 that the track was “not too far off slicks”, with the sun beating down on qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.
And after the initial runs took place on intermediates, halfway through Q2 the decision was made at McLaren and Alfa Romeo to put Piastri, Norris and Valtteri Bottas on slicks, with the Ferrari and Red Bull drivers quickly following suit.
There were still some wet patches around Spa-Francorchamps, which made the first flying laps on dry tyres all the more interesting as the fight for places in the top 10 intensified.
Esteban Ocon swore on team radio and was left with his Alpine front wing dragging along the floor as he piled into the wall at Turn 9, leaving him unable to improve his time as the slick tyres began to take effect, though he was able to bring himself back to the pit lane.
As was the case in Q1, the final laps were the ones to count most on a track surface that continued to dry, with Sergio Perez, Norris, Yuki Tsunoda and Piastri all making their way to top spot at different times.
Given he was unable to set the timing screens alight, Verstappen was only just able to scrape through in 10th place to Q3, with the two-time World Champion breathing a sigh of relief no doubt – despite a five-place grid penalty already coming his way.
AlphaTauri driver Tsunoda would drop out however, sharing the sixth row with former team-mate and great friend Pierre Gasly, with Kevin Magnussen, Bottas and Ocon all dropping away in Q2 as well.
Verstappen was not best pleased after being on track at a non-ideal time for his liking, voicing his frank concerns to race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase and grazing the gravel at Turn 9 on his fastest lap, calling it “**** execution” on Red Bull’s part.
Lambiase retorted and said: “Okay, and then when the track was two seconds quicker for your final lap and you didn’t have any energy left, how would that have gone down?”
Verstappen storms to Belgian Grand Prix P1, but Leclerc will take pole
But onwards to Q3, and after a short delay for the circuit being swept after Ocon’s off in Q2, it was slick tyres all the way as it was a dry fight for pole.
Charles Leclerc was provisional pole after the first runs, edging out Verstappen by a tenth and Sainz in third, with the McLarens of Piastri and Norris rounding out the top five.
But with the final runs to come, it was all to be decided in the closing moments of qualifying in a forecast-defying session at Spa-Francorchamps.
Leclerc took almost a second out of his previous best time, but Verstappen would go even faster still – going eight tenths faster than the Ferrari driver and the rest of the field altogether.
It was a colossal lap from the World Championship leader but with five-place penalty to come, it will be Leclerc who earns pole position come Sunday, joined by Perez on the front row.
Belgian Grand Prix 2023 qualifying classification
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull 1:46.168
2 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +0.820
3 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull +0.877
4 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +0.919
5 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +0.984
6 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +1.197
7 Lando NORRIS McLaren +1.501
8 George RUSSELL Mercedes +1.637
9 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +1.675
10 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +2.673
11 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri 1:53.148
12 Pierre GASLY Alpine +0.523
13 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas +1.012
14 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +1.456
15 Esteban OCON Alpine +3.224
16 Alexander ALBON Williams 2:00.314
17 ZHOU Guanyu Alfa Romeo +0.518
18 Logan SARGEANT Williams +1.221
19 Daniel RICCIARDO AlphaTauri +1.845
20 Nico HULKENBERG Haas +2.852