Nico Rosberg takes pole as Lewis Hamilton starts at back of grid
Max Verstappen becomes youngest driver to start F1 race on front row of grid
Germany’s Nico Rosberg drives his Mercedes during qualifying for the Belgium Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images
Nico Rosberg took advantage of championship rival Lewis Hamilton’s engine penalty to secure pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Hamilton, who is 19 points clear of Rosberg in the title race after winning six of the last seven grands prix, completed just one run before bowing out in 21st place.
And his severe punishment, following a number of changes to his engine here this weekend, means he will start from last position. No driver in Formula One history has ever won from the final spot on the grid.
The grid penalty has been lingering over Hamilton like a dark cloud after he encountered several engine failures in the opening rounds of the season.
His Mercedes team had been weighing up whether to take the grid drop here at Spa-Francorchamps or at next Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, with both circuits expected to offer him the best chance of fighting back through the field.
But a decision was taken by Formula One’s all-conquering team to incur the penalty on the sport’s return to action following its traditional mid-season break.
Following a raft of changes to his engine, Hamilton will serve a 55-place penalty under the sport’s complicated rules, but in reality, the size of his punishment actually matters little with the world champion simply ordered to the back of the field, and not incurring a further timed penalty.
“The guys did an incredible job, putting engines in and taking them out,” Hamilton said.
“I want to get up as high as I can [in the race] but it’s going to be hard. It won’t be smooth sailing – one car per lap – and it’s going to be lots of pit stops, so who knows?”
Hamilton’s penalty hands the initiative firmly over to his Mercedes team-mate, and Rosberg, to his credit, made no mistake in qualifying. His best lap of minute and 46.744 seconds was enough to place him ahead of Verstappen, who impressed once again in front of thousands of his fans who made the short trip from the Netherlands.
Fernando Alonso was already due to join Hamilton on the back row after serving an engine penalty, and his miserable weekend continued in qualifying after he failed to set a time when his McLaren came to a stop on track just moments after leaving the pit-lane.
Rosberg, who finished only seventh in final practice on Saturday morning, said: “We had a difficult weekend up to now and especially this morning as we were seriously off the pace on one lap. So, it wasn’t easy coming into qualifying.
“We got the job done in the end, we made a few changes on the car, and we found the right way. So, it all came together and it was feeling good so I am very pleased about that one.”
Verstappen, who becomes the youngest-ever driver to start a Formula One race on the front row of the grid at 18, added: “You can always do a better job, but Nico could have done a better lap, too. To be so close to them, on a lap with some long straights, we can be very proud of that.”