SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS // While two dozen Formula One drivers returned to the track Saturday for the first qualifying session since the mid-season break, there had been hope the infamous finger of Sebastian Vettel would remain on vacation ahead of Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix.
But it was not to be.
The 24-year-old German, leading the world championship by 85 points and having won more than half of the 11 races held so far this season, watched as, first, Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber and then Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes clocked the fastest laps of the session in inconsistent weather conditions at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
However, less than a second after Hamilton sailed past the chequered flag, Vettel usurped him with a lap 0.432 seconds quicker.
The achievement saw Red Bull extend their remarkable record of having secured pole at every race this season.
It also saw Vettel extend his renowned index finger skywards for the ninth time since the season-opening race in Melbourne.
"It was a difficult session with very tricky conditions," Vettel said. "I didn't feel comfortable at the beginning of qualifying, but for Q2 we made a big step forward and I rediscovered Spa in a way. It was a very good lap and I was very happy with the car towards the end."
Vettel, who secured pole last time out in Hungary but finished second behind McLaren's Jenson Button, added that, courtesy of Belgium's unpredictable weather, he was not getting too confident.
"It will be one of those races where anything can happen," he said. "I don't know what the forecast is, but the best way to know here is to look up into the sky and see what's happening. It's likely to be dry and the balance felt good at the end of Q3 when it was dry. But what are the odds? I don't know if you would put your money on the weather around here."
Hamilton, a figure of controversy this season, was once again called to the stewards' office after a collision with Pastor Maldonado, the Williams driver. While Hamilton was given a reprimand, the Venezuelan rookie was given a five-place grid penalty.
"It was quite serious and quite fortunate that neither of us - particularly him - was flipped or had a big crash," said Hamilton, who added his team are "quite strong" going into this afternoon's race.
WEBBER: IT'S A NO-BRAINER TO REMAIN AT RED BULL RACING'
Webber described it as a “no-brainer” in continuing with Red Bull Racing for the 2012 season.
After months of speculation, the Australian, who yesterday celebrated his 35th birthday, has agreed to a one-year extension with the team.
“I want to continue racing at the top in Formula One so it’s a no-brainer to remain at Red Bull Racing for another year,” said Webber.
“Over the past five years we have worked hard and proved we can design and build a competitive and championship-winning car. I’m looking forward to putting the car and myself on the limit again each and every race weekend in 2012.”
BELGIAN GRAND PRIX: STARTING GRID
Place driver, team, qualifying time
1 Vettel, Red Bull, 1m48.298secs
2 Hamilton, McLaren, 1.48.730
3 Webber, Red Bull, 1.49.376
4 Massa, Ferrari, 1.50.256
5 Rosberg, Mercedes, 1.50.552
6 Alguersuari, STR-Ferrari, 1.50.773
7 Senna, Renault, 1.51.121
8 Alonso, Ferrari, 1.51.251
9 Perez, Sauber, 1.51.374
10 Petrov, Renault, 1.52.303
11 Buemi, STR-Ferrari, 2.04.692
12 Kobayashi, Sauber, 2.04.757
13 Button, McLaren, 2.05.150
14 Barrichello, Williams, 2.07.349
15 Sutil, Force India, 2.07.777
16 Maldonado, Williams-x, 2.08.106
17 Kovalainen, Lotus, 2.08.354
18 Di Resta, Force India, 2.07.758
19 Trulli, Lotus, 2.08.773
20 Glock, Virgin, 2.09.566
21 D’Ambrosio, Virgin, 2.11.601
22 Liuzzi, HRT, 2.11.616
23 Ricciardo, HRT, 2.13.077
24 Schumacher, Mercedes, no time
x-Will be given five-spot penalty for an incident during qualifying with Hamilton.