Lewis Hamilton left it to the last second to beat Sebastian Vettel's time and secure his fourth straight pole position of the season at the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday.
In a frantic finish under heavy rain at Spa, the lead changed hands in a flurry of activity as first Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber and then Vettel all beat each other's times, only for Hamilton to go fastest for the fifth time this season and the 31st time in the 2008 champion's career.
"I am so surprised. When I started the lap, I looked at the screen and I was seventh or eighth and it was raining more and more," Hamilton said. "I just kept pushing."
Hamilton let out a long scream of delight on crossing the line. The British driver won the previous GP in Hungary last month and needs another win in Spa to keep the pressure on championship leader Vettel of Red Bull. He is fourth overall and trails Vettel by 48 points with nine races left.
"It's a blessing I am up here. I feel quite comfortable in changing conditions and I feel I am able to find my limits in those conditions," Hamilton said. "I just hope we can do that in the race tomorrow. I feel I have been driving well for some time now."
Mercedes have won three of the past five races and have shown they can challenge Red Bull for speed. "Lewis had quite an impressive middle sector, he was right behind me," Vettel said. "I could have gone a little bit quicker here and there."
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn let out a sigh of relief. "We were just on the limit of being the last car. It did work out for us and with the track drying, Lewis did a great job. He really is settling in well to the team," he said.
Webber qualified third ahead of Rosberg and Paul di Resta, who looked set for an upset until the drivers came back out on new tyres and eclipsed his time.
"Difficult for all of us to make the right call," Webber said. "In the end we got most things pretty good, I would say."
Last year's winner Jenson Button starts from sixth for McLaren, ahead of Lotus pair Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
But it was a bad afternoon for Fernando Alonso, who was ninth for Ferrari. "The aim is to win. Anything can happen here," a defiant Alonso said. "If we manage to pass people in front, we have the pace."
Heavy rain started falling just before the start, making the already-difficult track even more treacherous. Pastor Maldonado and Adrian Sutil span their cars early on.
In Friday's second practice, both Vettel and Alonso sustained punctures to their rear-right tyres, putting the spotlight back onto manufacturer Pirelli.
The punctures prompted fears that Pirelli's tyres could once again be vulnerable following a series of high-profile failures this season - notably at the Spanish GP and the British GP - that led to a boycott threat from drivers prior to the German GP.
That forced under-pressure Pirelli to revert back to the 2012 construction twinned with their 2013 compounds in Hungary. The modified tyres held firm in Budapest, but Spa is a tougher track because its long, steep corners create more pressure. Following a detailed examination of the circuit between turns 13 (Fagnes) and 15 (Stavelot) where the incidents occurred, Pirelli discovered that a metal skidplate was the cause of the punctures and that it was not a tyre-related issue.
Associated Press, Reuters