There are two things that this Belgian circuit never lacks: drama and rain. Or perhaps that should be rain and drama. The two seem inseparable.
After three weather-affected practice sessions, qualifying assumed even greater importance as further rain clouds gathered above the majestic circuit in the Hautes Fagnes region. Though Sebastian Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton and his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber to take his ninth pole position of the season, it was not straightforward.
"In Q1 and Q2 there were very tricky conditions but the circuit was drying quickly," the world champion said. "It was difficult on the intermediate tyres and I wasn't very comfortable at the beginning, but in Q2 I rediscovered Spa, in a way, and found some better lines and made an important step. In Q3 we were quite sure it was dry tyres, but if it started to rain we knew it would be all down to the last lap. Mine was a very good one, so I'm very happy."
For brief moments Hamilton had been fastest, running just ahead of Vettel on the road. "That's the longest I've held pole this season," the McLaren driver joked, but there was little laughter in the camp after Hamilton had been driven into by the Williams driver Pastor Maldonado, nor earlier when Jenson Button just missed getting in his crucial final lap and had to settle for 13th on the grid.
At the end of Q2 Hamilton set what was then the fastest time after passing a slow Maldonado on the exit to the Bus Stop chicane, the last corner. But then the Venezuelan drove into the McLaren on the exit to La Source, the first corner, having appeared to veer deliberately to the left.
"In the chicane I saw the two Williamses going very slowly, so I tried to get past which I did, but I lost a lot of time," Hamilton said. "On the exit to Turn One I saw Maldonado approaching quite quickly; he came round me and I didn't move in any way, and then he swiped across me. I don't know whether it was intentional.
"I felt quite a hard thud and thought tracking was broken and the steering felt light for the rest of the lap and there was a shudder from the side of the car. It was quite serious, and just fortunate that one of us didn't flip. Once the flag is out and the red lights on, there's no need to be racing and there should never be an incident. I was quite lucky there."
Some spectators were less fortunate, being struck by flying debris.
After a very lengthy meeting of the stewards, who included Nigel Mansell, Hamilton received a reprimand while Maldonado justly received a five grid-place penalty.
Fortunately damage to the McLaren was confined to the front wing and sidepod, and in Q3 Hamilton's best lap was 1min 48.738sec, which beat the 1:49.376 with which Webber momentarily seemed set to celebrate his 35th birthday. But only seconds later Vettel's 1:48.298 settled things.
"We have some new components which seem to have worked quite well," Hamilton said. "I was just saying to Seb that obviously he did a fantastic lap. We don't know what the weather will do tomorrow, so we didn't go for optimal dry weather downforce levels. It's been a compromise. But I think we are quite strong."
Felipe Massa sprung a surprise by qualifying his Ferrari fourth as his team-mate Fernando Alonso could only manage eighth. But the real shocks came from Jaime Alguersuari who put in his best-ever qualifying performance to take sixth for Toro Rosso, and Ayrton Senna's nephew Bruno who took a very impressive seventh after controversially replacing Nick Heidfeld in the Renault team. But there was no fairy story for Michael Schumacher on the 20th anniversary of his sensational F1 debut here in 1991. As his Mercedes approached Les Combes on his first lap of qualifying, he crashed as the right rear wheel fell off. He will start 24th, stark contrast to the seventh place he took for Jordan two decades ago.
1. S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:48.298; 2. L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:48.730; 3. M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:49.376; 4. F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:50.256; 5. N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes, 1:50.552; 6. J Alguersuari (Sp) T Rosso, 1:50.773; 7. B Senna (Br) Renault 1:51.121; 8. F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari, 1:51.251; 9. S Perez (Mex) Sauber, 1:51.374; 10. V Petrov (Rus) Renault, 1:52.303; 11. S Buemi (Swit) T Rosso 2:04.692; 12. K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 2:04.757; 13. J Button (GB) McLaren 2:05.150; 14. R Barrichello (Br) Williams 2:07.349; 15. A Sutil (Ger) F India 2:07.777; 16. P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 2:08.106; 17. H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus 2:08.354; 18. P di Resta (GB) F India, 2:07.758; 19. J Trulli (It) Lotus, 2:08.773; 20. T Glock (Ger) Virgin 2:09.566; 21. J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin 2:11.601; 22. V Liuzzi (It) Hispania, 2:11.616; 23. D Ricciardo (Aus) HRT 2:13.077; 24. M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes no time