Last gasp Verstappen bags dramatic Spa pole ahead of superb Russell

Max Verstappen secured pole position for the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix, his last lap flyer on intermediate tyres in testing conditions besting the superb George Russell and his compatriot Lewis Hamilton.

It was a dramatic end to qualifying after a dramatic session that saw a huge shunt for Lando Norris at Raidillon delay proceedings by almost half an hour. Thankfully the McLaren driver emerged unscathed and when the session did resume, it looked as if it was Russell who would grab a sensational pole, his driving skills coming to the forefront in the great leveller that is rain.

But in front of his ‘home from home’ Belgian crown who braved the extreme conditions, it was Verstappen who put in his best effort when it counted the most, beating Russell by 0.321s as title rival Hamilton could only manage third fastest.

“It has been a really tricky qualifying, hard to keep the car on track,” said Verstappen after his last gasp effort. “The long break between Q2 and Q3 it is not easy to learn the track conditions and settle in again but in the end we were first and that’s the most important. It’s an amazing track to drive but very challenging in the wet.

“As you saw in Q1 a lot of people went out on the extreme and it was really slow, a lot of seconds off the pace so naturally you switch to the intermediate, and of course that tyre cannot handle a lot of standing water so again that also becomes quite tricky. But super happy after the break to have pole position again.”

If it was Verstappen who was left celebrating a ninth pole position of his F1 career and Red Bull Racing’s first at Spa in ten years, arguably the driver of the day was Russell, who secured Williams Racing’s first front row slot since Monza in 2017.

“I don’t know what to say to be honest,” commented a delighted Russell afterward. “I was happy to get out of Q1 how we got on yesterday so standing here on the front row the guys did an amazing job today. I was on the track always at the right time, the car was feeling great. I had so much confidence, so onto tomorrow now.

“I think I was in a fortunate position where we had nothing to lose. We were in Q3 which is not a norm for us and we had to go for it. We saved the full maximum engine mode for the last lap and we thought, ‘let’s go for it’ so buzzing, absolutely buzzing. But tomorrow is the important one and we’ve got to go out there and score some more points.”

It all makes for a highly intriguing race day, with wet weather conditions again on the radar. It will mean that championship leader Hamilton will have it all to do if he wants to maintain that slender championship lead against his new biggest rival.

“It has been a very difficult day I think for everyone,” reflected Hamilton. “I just tried to stay positive and focused and calm but well done to Max, he did a great job at the end. My first lap was really good, the second I just struggled a little bit. And also a great job by George. Fantastic.

“If it’s like this tomorrow, it’s going to be tricky I think. There’s this balance between straight line speed versus that mid-section downforce. I think we’ve tried to strike the best balance possible and maybe it’s not the best for today but we will see exactly how good it is.

“Otherwise I’m just really grateful for the team for keeping their cool during this session and tomorrow is another day. Hopefully we have better weather, hopefully for the fans because they’re probably drenched out there today!”

Hamilton will also have to watch his mirrors very closely, if possible, Daniel Ricciardo alongside him on the grid followed by a third row of Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly. Next comes Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas as Esteban Ocon and the unfortunate Norris round out the top ten.

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Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.