Jenson Button dominated the final two segments of qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix to claim his first pole position since the Monaco GP of 2009.
Kamui Kobayashi took a surprise second place, ahead of Williams’ Pastor Maldonado, though the Venezuelan’s pleasure at being third fastest on the day was later tempered by a three-place grid penalty, imposed for blocking Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.
After the limited running on Friday due to incessant rain, there was scant time available in this morning final practice session to dial in a good set-up for both qualifying and tomorrow’s race but it was Button who seemed to make the best of the 60 minutes on offer and the McLaren driver gave an indicator of his pace with the quickest time in FP3.
Button has been there before this season, however, and seen how that can all go south in the afternoon. In Valencia, Button dominated FP3 but a few hours later slumped to P9 in qualifying and eighth in the race. In Britain it was worse. After finishing second in FP3, he plummeted to 18th on the grid and finished tenth.
There was no slip up today, however. Solid in Q1, Button then topped the order in the second segment and in Q3 powered to his first pole for McLaren in his 50th race for the team.
“It’s been quite a long time since I got my last pole position – that was back in 2009, Monaco I think,” he smiled afterwards. “It was pretty emotional (today). Sunday’s have been good for the past few years, but Saturdays have not gone perfectly. So, a great qualifying session and it’s so important to come back after the break, such a long break, with a good result on Saturday. I know the race is tomorrow but this is close to winning a race for me because it’s been so long.”
Kobayashi, meanwhile, powered through to his best ever starting position. It’s also the first time a Japanese driver has booked a front-row berth in F1. And afterwards Kobayashi admitted he had not expected the result.
“I didn’t expect second in qualifying,” he said. “We’re basically quite strong in the race, but not strong in quali on other tracks. I think we now have a really great opportunity for tomorrow. This is a really good start for the rest of the season. We’re happy to be here, confident and we showed that in quali. It’s really great and thanks to the guys.”
Maldonado, was pleased with his run to third saying that he had pushed to the maximum. The steward’s though took a dim view of just how that push had been delivered and his block on Hulkenberg means that the Venezuelan will now start sixth.
That penalty shifts fourth-fastest Kimi Raikkonen to the front of row two where he’ll line up ahead of Sergio Pérez, in the second Sauber. Fernando Alonso, sixth in Q3, will thus start fifth.
Mark Webber too will move down the grid following an overnight gearbox change before FP3. He finished seventh in Q3 but will start 12th tomorrow.
“I’m disappointed; I would like to have been further up on the grid, no doubt about it,” Webber said. “It was not quick enough today to fight for the front row and that obviously knocks the penalty around even more. I would have liked to have been a bit further up to take the sting out of the penalty but we’re further back so I’ll have to see what we can do.
“I was pretty happy with my lap: maximum P5 if I’d got a little bit more out of it. I had some good sections of the lap and some other sections where I’d have like to have done a bit better.”
“But Fernando’s not on the front row. However, the gap to Jenson is not very exciting! Jenson’s not really known for pulling big qualifying laps out but today he did and fair play to him. We couldn't respond to those sort of times so that is probably a bit more concerning. But we’ve seen it before, the race is often a bit different.”
Webber’s misfortune is good news for his team-mate though. Webber’s struggle to eke pace from the RB8 was matched by Sebastian Vettel though the champion failed to even make it out of Q2, the first time that has happened since the Chinese GP in April. However, Webber’s penalty means Vettel will move up to 10th on the grid.
“Today we missed a little bit to Q3. If we’d had another shot then maybe it’s a different story but all in all not good enough,” said Vettel. “The car felt pretty good this morning, even though the laps didn't come together. But the performances seemed to be there. This afternoon? I think the car was fine; there was nothing obviously wrong with it, but it just appeared that we weren’t quick enough – the speed just wasn’t there.
“I was pretty happy with my lap to be honest, it was just not quick enough,” he added. “If you miss the last qualifying by such a small amount it’s disappointing, but that’s racing. There’s no points today. The race is tomorrow. I hope to do much better in the race. I think there it's a different story. We’ve seen in the last races our car is pretty good in the race, so we’ll see.”