SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS: Sebastian Vettel grabbed his ninth pole of the season in dramatic fashion at the end of an incident-filled qualifying for Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday.
The defending world champion and current series leader drove his Red Bull to the 24th pole of his career on a day that also saw Lewis Hamilton emerge unscathed after an ugly incident involving Pastor Maldonado.
Venezuelan Maldonado appeared to steer his Williams deliberately into the side of Hamilton's McLaren as they came out of the La Source hairpin at the end of Q2, and after the chequered flag.
Maldonado was later punished by the race stewards and demoted from 16th to 21st on the starting grid while Hamilton was reprimanded.
Earlier, on a day of unpredictable weather and erratic outcomes, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, 42, crashed out of qualifying without clocking a time when his Mercedes shed its right rear wheel on his first lap in Q1.
“I've had some experience on three wheels before, but to lose a rear wheel is a bit more difficult to handle,” said Schumacher, who this weekend celebrates the 20th anniversary of his F1 debut with Jordan at the same track.
“Initially, I didn't know I'd lost a rear wheel. There is no reason to blame anybody, we all try our best, but at the end of the day we are all human.
“I've had some interesting races from the back so it's going to be entertaining,” added the German, who will start Sunday's 44-lap race from the back of the grid.
Schumacher's philosophical acceptance of his plight was in contrast to the relief of Vettel, and the shock felt by Hamilton, after they had completed their qualifying efforts with high-speed laps in the final minutes.
Vettel said: “It was a difficult session all in all. Q1 and Q2, with the tricky conditions and the circuit drying up very quickly, and it being tricky on inters (intermediate tyres) – the main target was to get through.
“I didn't feel comfortable right in the beginning, but in Q2 we made a big step forward. I rediscovered Spa in a way and found some better lines than all weekend.”
Hamilton, who had to compete in Q3 with a car partially held together by heavy black tape across the side-pods, said it had been fortunate that Maldonado's driving had not caused a major accident.
Over the team radio, he said: “He did that deliberately.” But after the session he was more circumspect.
He said: “I'll have to look at it. The Williams was just sitting there, it was very slow. I had to try and get past, which I did. I saw Maldonado approaching quite quickly – he happened to swipe across me.
“My front wing was quite damaged. I'll sit and wait for the stewards to call me up rather than going back to McLaren.
“Once the flag was out and the red light was on there is no need to be racing. There should never be any incidents like that.”
Maldonado denied he had driven deliberately into Hamilton's car.
He said: “It was a difficult moment – there was no reason from my side to have contact and from the side of Lewis. It wasn't rainy conditions and we need to understand what happened.
“There was no need for contact after the chequered flag.”
Hamilton wound up second by four-tenths of a second, but a full second clear of third-placed Australian Mark Webber in the second Red Bull.
For Webber, it was an anti-climax on his 35th birthday after he topped the times in final practice on the morning when it was confirmed he will stay with Red Bull in 2012.
Brazilian Felipe Massa was fourth for Ferrari ahead of German Nico Rosberg of Mercedes, Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari of Toro Rosso and, remarkably, Brazilian Bruno Senna, on his debut with the Renault team after an acrimonious promotion in place of German Nick Heidfeld.
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was eighth ahead of Mexican Sergio Perez of Sauber and Russian Vitaly Petrov in the second Renault.
Vettel's pole brought him his best starting position to date in Belgium.
“Oh yes, oh yes!” he screamed over the team radio on his slowing-down lap.
“That's the answer. Thank you.”