SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Lewis Hamilton moved level with Michael Schumacher's all-time record of 68 career pole positions after setting a new track record of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit and edging Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel to the top spot by 0.242s.
Hamilton set the new record of 1:42.553 on his last run in Q3, which was 0.4s up on his original effort in the session and 4.1s up on last year's pole time. Ultimately, it was Hamilton's middle sector that really stood out as he attacked some of Formula One's most challenging corners on the absolute limit. The left-hander at Pouhon was particularly impressive and Hamilton revealed afterwards that he was nearly flat through the apex. The pole position also means the three-time world champion could beat Schumacher's pole record at Ferrari's home race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, next weekend.
Vettel's lap was also impressive and he was faster than Hamilton in the final sector thanks to teammate Kimi Raikkonen giving him a tow along the long straight from Stavelot 2 to the final chicane. Raikkonen's own lap had gone awry in the middle sector and he quickly radioed the pit wall saying he would do his best to help his teammate. Top speed on the long straight from through the flat-out Blanchimont is crucial to a good lap time, and Vettel immediately thanked Raikkonen for his help in the post-session interviews.
Had it not been for that tow, Valtteri Bottas may have been much closer to the front row alongside Hamilton, but the Finn will still be wondering where the 0.541s to his teammate was lost. The data suggests most of it was in the middle sector, underlining the job Hamilton did.
After aborting his second attempt, Raikkonen -- who had looked quick all weekend and was faster than Vettel through the first sector on his final lap -- had to settle for fourth. In the end, his banker lap was only 0.110s faster than Max Verstappen in the Red Bull, who also put in a special lap in order to beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo to fifth by 0.483s.
Nico Hulkenberg took seventh for Renault ahead of the two Force Indias, but teammate Jolyon Palmer had looked quicker until Q3 when a transmission issue saw him pull to the side of the track before he could set a time. He qualified 10th and will hope that the issue does not require a gearbox change, which would result in a five-place penalty on Sunday's grid.
Fernando Alonso missed out on a spot in Q3 by just 0.084s after a loss of power from his Honda engine forced him to abort his final qualifying run. McLaren tried everything to give Alonso the best possible chance of making the top ten, using Stoffel Vandoorne's car to give him a tow down the Kemmel Straight and maximise straightline speed. The tactic worked perfectly on Alonso's second run in Q2 and he nudged 340km/h behind his teammate while setting a first sector just 0.4s off Hamilton. However, as he negotiated sector two -- McLaren's strongest sector of the circuit -- his Honda power unit lost power between the exit of Pouhon and the entrance of the Fagnes chicane and he crawled back to the pits.
Alonso's earlier effort was enough to secure 11th on the grid and he will line up ahead of the two Haas drivers of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. Carlos Sainz was 14th ahead of Vandoorne, who will start last once his grid penalty for two power unit changes and a gearbox change is factored in.
Both Williams cars were knocked out in the opening session of qualifying with Felipe Massa 16th and Lance Stroll, who missed out on a final run due to a damaged rear wing end plate, in 18th. Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat split the two Williams but the Russian was on the back foot after missing out on qualifying preparation in final practice due to a loss of power from his Renault engine. The two Saubers were 19th and 20th, over three seconds off the fastest time in Q1, but Marcus Ericsson will move off the back row of the grid once Vandoorne's 65-place penalty is factored in.