Sebastian Vettel admitted that he was 'happy' to have emerged from Belgian Grand Prix qualifying as 'best of the rest' behind the two Mercedes drivers, especially as he had come close to exiting at the end of phase two.
The German's decision to run the whole of Q2 on a single set of Pirelli's intermediate tyres, when rivals were taking the opportunity to fit a fresh set towards the end, paid off when he pulled out a quick enough final lap to escape the 'drop zone' and secure his place in the pole position shoot-out.
While the Red Bull team knew that, barring problems or mistakes affecting Mercedes, it was battling for something other than the front row, Vettel shrugged off a low downforce set-up in increasingly tricky conditions to post the third-best lap of the final session, edging Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in the battle for the inside of row two.
“Obviously, it would be nice to be further up, but the gap is quite big, so I think it was the best we could do today,” the four-time world champion conceded, “It was very tricky in the wet, we knew that [with low downforce], but the reasoning behind that was fairly simple.
“We know that we're down on power, while Mercedes can run more wing level and have a very strong car this year. They have a lot of downforce and can still take that wing level onto the straights. If we do that, we're quite similar in the corners but, on the straights, we're a long way off the pace. In the wet, that probably hurt us a bit more but, hopefully, tomorrow, we'll be a bit closer in terms of race pace, and closer to them than in the last couple of races.”
For a time, it appeared that Vettel may not even be in the fight for a top ten grid spot, having been pushed out of the reckoning as the order changed continuously through Q2. Sitting eleventh and with the clock counting down, however, he used all of his experience to produce a lap good enough to move up a couple of places – a result he then capitalised on in Q3.
“It was a tricky qualifying, especially Q2, which looked very tight for us,” he reflected, “I tried to stay out on the same set of tyres and save the extra set for Q3, and then it started to rain heavier, so I was quite confident that the track wouldn't get quicker.
“I did get the lap in at the end because the circuit picked up [speed], and, in Q3, I was able to use both sets of tyres. Obviously, it was very tight behind the two Mercedes, and tricky out there with low downforce - especially through Eau Rouge. I had a couple of moments, but it was a good challenge and, for sure, I'm happy with third.
“My season isn't going the way I was hoping, but there are still some races to come. I think we gave the maximum today and we're hoping for a strong result tomorrow.”