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Lewis Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68 Formula 1 pole positions at the Belgian Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver did a sensational lap to beat title rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, who was on top form himself, by 0.242 seconds.
Hamilton was 0.541secs ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who was third ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
Max Verstappen headed team-mate Daniel Ricciardo to an all-Red Bull third row.
Hamilton does it in style
The key to Hamilton’s pole was arguably a stupendous effort through the middle sector of the lap at the demanding Spa-Francorchamps track in the Ardennes mountains.
The Ferrari had been quicker than the Mercedes through sector two throughout the weekend but Hamilton pulled something out of the bag on his final run to set the pace there by 0.2secs.
Afterwards, F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn delivered a message from Schumacher’s family. Brawn said: “His wife Corinna said that Michael always believed records were there to be broken, and they want to offer their congratulations.”
Schumacher has not been seen in public since the skiing accident in 2013 that left him with severe head injuries and in a coma for some months. His family have consistently said his recovery will be long and hard and have given no other news of his condition.
‘Michael’s engine vibrated my ribcage’
“It’s a special day,” said Hamilton. “I knew it was on the horizon and knew I’d get the 68th pole, but I haven’t thought about it much.
“But now being there it is an unusual place to be. I remember coming here in 1996 my first grand prix and watching Michael come by and the engine vibrated my rib cage and that was when my love for the sport took another step.
“And I have now equalled him on poles and it is very surreal. It is a humbling experience knowing Michael is such a legend. It is an incredible feat he achieved and I am very proud to be up there with him.
“To be able to put a lap together like that is a dream. I have the best job in the world. It’s a pleasure to be here.
“To hear the message Ross just gave, I have to say a big thank you. I followed Michael and raced against him and always admired him. My prayers are for him and the family and he will always be one of the greatest of all time.”
Vettel sets up titanic battle
As good as Hamilton’s lap was, Vettel’s was equally impressive.
The German had been struggling for pace for much of the weekend compared to team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and was half a second down on Hamilton after the first runs in the top-10 shootout.
When Hamilton reduced his own time by a further 0.354secs on his final run and Bottas popped up in second place ahead of Raikkonen, Vettel appeared to have problems.
But he produced his own mega-lap to join Hamilton on the front row.
“It was the right lap at the right time,” Vettel said, adding that he had been helped by a slipstream from Raikkonen in the final sector, where the German set the fastest time of all in a part of the track where Mercedes have dominated all weekend.
The stage is therefore set for a titanic battle between the two title rivals in the race, which Vettel starts 14 points ahead of Hamilton.
Palmer’s pressure drop
Behind the Red Bulls, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg was seventh, a place that appeared set to occupied by his team-mate Jolyon Palmer.
The Englishman, who has had a difficult start to the season, had the edge on Hulkenberg all day and was seventh in the second part of qualifying.
But he suffered a loss of gearbox oil pressure on his out-lap at the start of Q3 and pulled off track in a cloud of smoke.
Palmer will thus start 10th, as the final Q3 runner, behind the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso was 11th, bemoaning a loss of power on his final lap in Q2.
McLaren had used team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne, who has a 60-place grid penalty for engine and gearbox transgressions, to ‘tow’ Alonso to try to compensate for the Honda engines lack of power on both his runs.
Alonso was 10th after his first run but on his final lap, which looked set to be quicker, the engine lost hybrid energy deployment between Pouhon and Stavelot and he had to abort the lap.
“No power, no power,” he screamed over the radio. But after getting over the frustration he said it was a generally positive weekend because 11th with choice of tyres might be better for the race and that the car had been surprisingly competitive on such a power track.
It was a dire day for Williams, whose drivers Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll both failed to progress beyond the first knock-out session.
Massa ended up 16th and Stroll 18th, the Canadian denied a second attempt to make it into Q2 when Williams ran out of time to change a damaged rear-wing endplate.
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