SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) - Charles Leclerc led a Ferrari front-row lockout in qualifying for the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix, but there was a sombre mood at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit following the death of driver Anthoine Hubert in a Formula Two race later on Saturday.
Leclerc stormed to pole position ahead of Sebastian Vettel as Ferrari dominated qualifying but celebrations were curtailed as the sport was rocked by Frenchman’s Hubert’s death after a high-speed crash on the same track later in the day.
It was the first driver fatality on a Formula One race weekend since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed at Imola in 1994.
Saturday’s tragedy cast a dark shadow over the circuit after what had been a compelling qualifying battle earlier in the day.
Leclerc, who has led every session but one this weekend, lit up the timing screens with a lap of one minute, 42.519 seconds.
He was the only driver to go under one minute 43, with Vettel ending up 0.748 seconds adrift.
The German, hoping to end a victory drought that goes back to last year’s Belgian race, was hindered by traffic and very nearly beaten by Lewis Hamilton.
The Briton, who leads the overall standings by 62 points from team mate Valtteri Bottas, was third, after his Mercedes team rebuilt his car in time for qualifying after he had crashed in Saturday morning’s final practice session.
“It obviously feels amazing,” said Leclerc, surprised by his victory margin over Vettel.
“It was very tricky, especially in Q3 (final phase of qualifying) I struggled quite a lot.
“The start of the lap was always very, very messy, because there was quite a lot of traffic with all the cars around but in the end I managed to do the full lap correctly and I’m very happy,” he added after claiming his third career pole.
Leclerc has now outqualified Vettel six races in a row.
The German had begun closing the gap to the Monegasque and had looked set to give his younger team mate a run for his money, with Ferrari in a league of their own.
Yet he was caught out before his final flying lap, with the field bunching up as some drivers warmed up their tyres while others slowed so as not to get too close to the cars in front.
“Uhh, messy!” said the four-times champion, summing up his session.
“I think I was getting into a sort of a rhythm, maybe it took a little bit longer for me today to really get a hold of the car but it felt quite good.
“Anyways, Charles did a better job today ... so now looking forward to tomorrow.”
Ferrari, who secured their second front row lockout of the year, are yet to win a race this season.
Yet the Spa-Francorchamps track and Monza, where the team’s home Italian Grand Prix will be held next week, have been singled out as the Maranello-based outfit’s best opportunities to end their victory drought.
Yet while Ferrari’s speed is formidable over a single lap, Mercedes are a match for them in race trim and Hamilton is looking forward to putting up a fight on Sunday.
“In the long run we can at least give them a bit of a challenge tomorrow,” said Hamilton.
“I think a bit of the straight speed, which is where generally all the speed is, it’s usually not there so much in the race, so hopefully we’ll be there or thereabout with them tomorrow and can put in maybe some interesting strategies, we’ll see.”
Outside the top three, Bottas, who has been retained by Mercedes for another season , lines up alongside Hamilton in fourth.
Max Verstappen, enjoying plenty of support from his orange clad Dutch fans, was fifth.
Daniel Ricciardo, carrying an engine-related penalty that will drop him down the grid, was sixth ahead of Renault team mate Nico Hulkenberg, who is also carrying a grid penalty.
Kimi Raikkonen set the eighth-fastest time for Alfa Romeo ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.
Kevin Magnussen rounded out the top 10 for the Haas team and Alexander Albon will start 18th on his Red Bull debut.
The Thai rookie, promoted from Toro Rosso in a mid-season swap with underperforming Frenchman Pierre Gasly, is carrying engine-related penalties for running an upgraded Honda power unit.
Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis