• Lewis Hamilton pipped at end of qualifying by Sebastian Vettel
• Jenson Button fails to make top 10 for Belgian Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton escaped meaningful punishment from the stewards here, but received a bloody nose from another old adversary, Sebastian Vettel, as the Red Bull driver won pole for Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix, the ninth time he has topped the timings in 12 races this season.
With Jenson Button in 13th on the grid following a breakdown in communications with his team and Hamilton trudging wearily in the direction of the stewards it looked as if it would be a black day for McLaren beneath the rain clouds of the Ardennes.
But Hamilton, the winner here last year, will start right behind Vettel with the German’s team-mate Mark Webber and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa taking the second row of the grid.
It was an almost surreal qualifying session, with sunshine and rain, dry track and wet, creating consternation and confusion on the pitwall. At the end of a hectic hour the happiest faces were worn by Vettel and Bruno Senna.
Making his Renault debut in place of the dropped Nick Heidfeld, Senna qualified seventh, three places ahead of team-mate Vitaly Petrov.
The McLaren pair and Michael Schumacher of Mercedes looked more grim. Schumacher lost a wheel on the out-lap and was unable to take part. Button had never been excluded from the top 10 qualifying shoot-out this season.
“It’s a bit of a shock being back in 13th, especially after Q1 when I was quickest by a second,” Button said. “The car’s been working great all weekend. I’m very happy with it. I’m the most confident I’ve been all year.
“We messed up. I should have kept pushing on my second lap, but I didn’t realise that I only had that lap to go. I didn’t get any messages to keep pushing on the next lap.
“So I cooled the car down and tried to look after the tyres to go again on the next lap. And there wasn’t a next lap. It was the wrong call, but I’m not going to point the finger at anyone. There’s no one to point the finger at. My engineer did say to me before I went out – not that I recall it, but I believe him – that I had two laps to do. But I didn’t hear that.”
Hamilton, like Button, was in scintillating form, but he did not seem to be entirely guilt free when he clashed with Pastor Maldonado. But he got away with a reprimand while the Williams driver was pushed back five places on the grid.
Hamilton did appear to move to the right before going back again. “It’s clear from the footage we were going down a straight which curves to the right and he was far on the right and I’m far on the left,” the British driver said. “I can’t go any more to the left and somehow the car ends up hitting me right in front.
“I thought he was coming past and then, somehow, he ended right alongside me. I was quite lucky his rear wheel didn’t hit my front wheel and I didn’t get more damage.”
After a difficult season, in which McLaren have sometimes been unlucky, but also off the pace on some occasions, it looked bleak for Hamilton for a while but he received the benefit of the doubt.
McLaren’s team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, said: “We should have been more proactive. Jenson backed out on a quickening track and on that last lap he should have been pushing.
“Jenson lifted. We should have been quicker to react and tell him to keep pushing. It’s disappointing. We didn’t communicate quickly enough.”
The Hamilton-Maldonado incident was “fairly extraordinary”, according to Whitmarsh. “Suddenly Maldonado chopped across him and he could easily have taken Lewis out of qualifying. We were lucky to be able to get Lewis back out there. We changed the front wing but I don’t think we should be saying he would have been on pole. It was an inconvenient incident.”
The forecast for Sunday is dry. But that appears to mean nothing in Spa. The race could turn out to be as hectic as the qualifying session.
Starting grid for Belgian F1 Grand Prix
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1min 48.298sec; 2 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:48.730; 3 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:49.376; 4 F Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:50.256; 5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:50.552; 6 J Alguersuari (Spa) Toro Rosso 1:50.773; 7 B Senna (Bra) Renault 1:51.121; 8 F Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1:51.251; 9 S Pérez (Mex) Sauber 1:51.374; 10 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:52.303; 11 S Buemi (Swi) Toro Rosso 2:04.692; 12 K Kobayashi (Jpn) Sauber 2:04.757; 13 J Button (GB) McLaren 2:05.150; 14 R Barrichello (Bra) Williams 2:07.349; 15 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 2:07.777; 16 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 2:08.106; 17 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus 2:08.354; 18 P Di Resta (GB) Force India 2:07.758; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus 2:08.773; 20 T Glock (Ger) Virgin 2:09.566; 21 J d’Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin 2:11.601; 22 V Liuzzi (It) HRT 2:11.616; 23 D Ricciardo (Aus) HRT 2:13.077; 24 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes no time set.
J d’Ambrosio, V Liuzzi and D Ricciardo will not race.