Saturday, 6 September 2008

Belgian Grand Prix Qualifying: Hamilton the class of the field in Spa

Lewis Hamilton secured one of the most important pole positions of his young career in Saturday's qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. At a track where Ferrari were expected to dominate, the McLaren drivers ended up in first and third leaving Massa and especially Raikkonen with plenty of work to do tomorrow afternoon. Nick Heidfeld produced one of his best displays of the year to come in fifth place ahead of Alonso, Webber, Kubica and the two Toro Rosso drivers.

The conditions were decidedly cool with dark clouds surrounding the circuit. Fortunately for the drivers the rain that threatened to throw a spanner in the works never arrived, and the whole session was run in dry conditions. The first session didn't really throw up too many surprises; all of the main contenders made it through comfortably and without incident, and the predicted strugglers went out of the first hurdle. Both Hondas looked pretty appalling, their blushes saved only by perennial back markers Force India and the terribly out of sorts Kazuki Nakajima.

The second session again saw the main title rivals get through without any real issues. There was a real surprise at the top of the timing screens though, as Toro Rosso's under pressure Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais was fastest of all. Fastest in Q2 doesn't really count for much in the end, but I'm sure it's a moment Bourdais will remember for a long time. Kovalainen was second behind the former Champ Car ace ahead of his team mate Hamilton. McLaren were looking extremely comfortable, with Lewis Hamilton running the fewest laps of anyone in the entire field by this point in the day. Were Ferrari holding anything back in store for Q3?

Felipe Massa was the first man out in Q3 and would be the man setting down the benchmark time for everyone to match. He made a bit of a balls up of the final chicane though, and lost plenty of time. Raikkonen was easily faster than Massa, but then both McLarens went faster still and looked very comfortable. Heidfeld continued his excellent showing from yesterday by getting ahead of Massa. Vettel did not bother going out for the first round of flying laps. He clearly was happy enough just to stay in P10 and fill his tank to the brim for race day.

Everyone came in and bolted on a fresh set of option tyres and went out to do battle again. This time around Massa held it together really well and went fastest so far. It looked an excellent lap from the Brazilian, and he seemed to squeeze out everything the Ferrari had to offer. Raikkonen couldn't match his team mate, a situation which has now become the norm for the increasingly beleaguered world champion. But behind Kimi on the road Hamilton was absolutely flying, and he crossed the line a full 3 tenths quicker than Massa. A brilliant lap from the young Brit, one which his team mate Kovalainen couldn't quite match. McLaren couldn't quite manage the front row lock out they would have hoped for, but Heikki at least managed to split the two Ferraris in third place. Heidfeld took a well deserved 5th place ahead of a strong performance from Alonso. Webber edged out the struggling Kubica by the slimmest of margins for 7th place, with Bourdais putting in his best showing of his F1 career in 9th ahead of Vettel.

So the run down to La Source on the very first lap will be a straight fight between this year's two main title contenders. Massa will be looking for a repeat performance of his brilliant first lap in Hungary two races ago, but may find it tricky given that La Source is a somewhat easier corner to defend from pole. It should be a great fight between the two, and a perfect test of their title credentials. Hamilton certainly looked a little faster here today, but the suspicion is that he's running a little lighter in the first stint. It should be fascinating to watch, especially if the Ardenne Forest throws up the kind of changeable weather it is famed for at any point during tomorrow's race...

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Hamilton
2. Massa
3. Kovalainen
4. Raikkonen
5. Heidfeld
6. Alonso
7. Webber
8. Kubica
9. Bourdais
10. Vettel
11. Trulli
12. Piquet
13. Glock
14. Coulthard
15. Rosberg
16. Barrichello
17. Button
18. Sutil
19. Nakajima
20. Fisichella

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