Lewis Hamilton comes through 'difficult' qualifying to claim pole for Belgian Grand Prix
Mercedes' reigning world champion takes advantage of rainy conditions to beat Ferrari's Vettel to top spot at Spa-Francorchamp
Lewis Hamilton described qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix as one of the toughest of his career after the Mercedes-GP driver claimed pole for Sunday's race.
As the rain swept in over the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit, Hamilton took advantage of the tricky conditions to finish comfortably clear of title rival Sebastian Vettel.
Frenchman Esteban Ocon will line up in a surprise third place for Force India ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez.
Vettel, who trails Hamilton by 24 points in the drivers' championship, was the strong favourite to take pole, with Ferrari holding the advantage over Mercedes in the dry conditions.
Lewis Hamilton v Sebastian Vettel: who will be crowned F1 champion?
Belgian Grand Prix: Hamilton and Vettel title fight resumes as F1 returns after summer break
But as the rain arrived in the seconds before the top-10 shootout, it was Hamilton who took registered the fastest time to finish a mighty seven tenths clear of Vettel.
"That was one of the toughest qualifying sessions that I can remember," Hamilton said after securing the 78th pole of his career.
"I don't know if Ferrari definitely had the pole in the dry. I was hopeful I could make it but I knew it would be close.
"Then, the rain came, and I can't express how difficult it was. It was so hard. I went off the track twice, but I am so glad I managed to keep it together on that last lap."
Vettel, who like Hamilton is bidding to win a fifth world title, believed the change in conditions worked against Ferrari.
"We didn't time it great, but in these conditions anything can happen, so you may as well take second," the German said. We had the pace for pole, but the lap to Lewis was quite big so he deserved it."
The result will come as a blow to Vettel, with Hamilton's surge to the top in qualifying the first time the world champion has been fastest all weekend.
Hamilton ran wide on his first attempt at pole, but, as has so often been the case in his career, did not put a foot wrong when the pressure was on.
Like Hamilton, Force India, the British-based team taken out of administration over the summer, also made the most of the inclement conditions to line up in third and fourth.
Romain Grosjean was fifth for Haas ahead of Vettel's Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished a disappointing seventh and eighth for Red Bull Racing.
Earlier in the dry, McLaren's sorry season took another miserable twist with the British team's worst qualifying session of the year.
Fernando Alonso finished only 17th, while his under-pressure teammate Stoffel Vandoorne propped up the order at his home race.
Alonso, 37, announced over the summer break that he will call time on his 17-season career at the end of the year, but Vandoorne's future is likely to be taken out of his own hands.
The Belgian driver, in his second season with the team, had already posted the slowest time in all three practice sessions before his qualifying nightmare.
British teenager Lando Norris deputised for Alonso in opening practice on Friday, and the feeling is that he could be promoted in Vandoorne's place next year.
Norris, 18, would join Carlos Sainz, who is moving from Renault to McLaren, but the Spaniard was also slow on Saturday, falling at the first hurdle of qualifying. He is set to line up in 16th.
Sainz will be replaced at Renault by Red Bull's Ricciardo.
Updated: August 25, 2018 08:10 PM