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Leclerc starts from pole at Belgian Grand Prix after Verstappen penalty

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc. Photo: John Thys/AFP

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc will start from pole position for the Belgian Grand Prix despite Max Verstappen having set the fastest time in qualifying on Friday.

Double world champion Verstappen incurred a five-grid penalty for a change of gearbox on his Red Bull demoting him to sixth for Sunday’s race.

Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez will start alongside Leclerc on the front row for the 12th race of the Formula One season.

Verstappen, who leads the championship by 110 points, won at Spa-Francorchamps last year from 14th on the grid.

“Last year we had lots of penalties and I still won the race so that will be the aim again,” said the Belgian-born Dutch driver.

Leclerc, eight-tenths of a second slower than Verstappen, said: “Not a bad qualifying for us, especially in those conditions. Let’s see how it goes.”

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari occupy the second row ahead of McLaren duo Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris.

Saturday features the third sprint race of the F1 season after Azerbaijan and Austria, with qualifying for the standalone race scheduled for Saturday morning at the majestic Ardennes circuit.

Verstappen’s penalty does not apply to the sprint.

The Red Bull ace was lucky to squeeze into the third qualifying session with a late lap to climb to 10th in Q2 and admitted he had battled the drying conditions throughout the session.

“It was very tight. The conditions were really tricky and on my final lap in Q2 I didn’t have that confidence to push, but in Q3 we had two tyre sets so we had more chance to push,” he reported.

Verstappen will be seeking to reel off his eighth consecutive win this year.

Both Leclerc and Perez expressed some relief at surviving the session successfully following earlier suggestions that it was possible qualifying might be cancelled if the weather had made it dangerous to race on the track. 

After a rain-hit practice session earlier in the day, qualifying took place in improved conditions after a delayed start.

The conditions remained inconsistent and treacherous in part and it was little surprise when Esteban Ocon slapped the barriers at Turn Nine in Q2, breaking part of his Alpine’s front wing, as the times tumbled. 

Hamilton, George Russell, Norris, Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri and Piastri all topped the times in the final frantic minutes as Verstappen was pushed out to 11th, recovering to wind up 10th and squeeze through to the shootout. 

Tsunoda ended up 11th and out along with Alpine’s Pierre Gasly, Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Alfa Romeo’s Bottas and Ocon. 

After clearing up the debris from Ocon’s broken wing, the top-ten shootout began with Fernando Alonso leading a 10-car train of pairs of cars from the top five teams.

On their first runs, it was Leclerc on top ahead of Verstappen with Sainz third in the second Ferrari and the two McLarens. Hamilton and Russell did additional laps to improve to sixth and ninth. 

Leclerc set the pace with a quick turn in 1:46.988, leaving Sainz and Piastri to go second and third initially before Verstappen blasted to the top in 1:46.168, by eight-tenths – a stunning lap. 

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