Sport as a whole may love a good narrative, the rise of the underdog is something we rarely see in Formula 1 nowadays. In a time where financial muscle and depth of resources seems to dictate the pecking order, it is very rare for us to be treated to a true upset.

And yet in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday at Spa, we saw one of the feel-good stories of the year play out courtesy of Force India, now the basement team in the constructors’ championship that only three days ago was unsure if it would even be racing this weekend.

Singapore #1

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The saga surrounding Force India’s entrance and exit from administration, its sale to a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll and the ultimate securing of its future has unfolded throughout the summer break, but really came to a head at Spa. On Thursday evening, it was confirmed the team would be racing at Spa, but as a new entity. Sahara Force India was dead; long live Racing Point Force India.

Ironically given its name, the team now had zero racing points following Sahara Force India’s exclusion from the championship, a requirement for the new team to be a mid-season entry. But the mood was upbeat on Friday, particularly given Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon’s decent pace in practice.

Even then, few could have predicted just how good things would get on Saturday in qualifying. Ocon and Perez eased through the first two stages of qualifying in dry conditions, but as rain began to fall at Spa, an opportunity had arose.

The field predictably queued up at the end of the pit lane in a bid to get the best of the conditions, but all found it difficult to stay on-track. Valtteri Bottas offered the most visual evidence that it was not a time for slick tyres with a spin at Blanchimont, doing well to keep his Mercedes out of the wall. The pack backed up and snaked into the pit lane.

Not Perez and Ocon, though. Still running on Supersoft tyres, they took the start-finish line to begin a flying lap, sensing the chance to catch the rest of the pack out. But the rain quickly grew heavier, leaving both drivers tip-toeing around the track.

“When I started my lap, the rain increased quite a lot,” Perez explained. “But obviously into Sector 1 I didn’t know how much. I’m there on the slicks, I go through Eau Rouge, it doesn’t feel that bad, so just trying to feel because you can see the asphalt being very wet. I get a massive moment that was going to finish my day. Luckily I saved it. I managed to continue.

“It was just a mess to come back, and coming back to the pits, I ran over the kerb, locked the rear, already at very slow speed and jumped over it. We had to check the car and make sure everything was OK, which meant we went too late to do two laps, even though we were timing for the two laps.”

The chance to capitalise on the weather appeared to have been and gone, with the advantage seeming to lie with Max Verstappen, who was the first driver to venture out on intermediates, thus theoretically giving him the best conditions should the rain grow heavier. A number of drivers got times on the board, with Perez delayed as the checks on his car continued.

Alas, it proved to be a blessing in disguise. The rain decreased in intensity, allowing the track to dry out, meaning those running later, not earlier, had the advantage. This was bad news for the likes of Verstappen, Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in particular, all of whom had put a low amount of fuel in their cars. They had to pit, and with no time to fill the tank, all were left to wait and watch as cars went quicker on the drying track.

The focus naturally lay with the battle for pole as title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel exchanged quick lap times, but the Force Indias were able to light up the timesheets as the clock neared zero. Perez was first to take the flag, going a full eight-tenths quicker than Raikkonen to provisionally take third on the grid. Ocon found a precious four-hundredths of a second over his teammate with his final flyer, giving him P3 - and securing the team that didn’t exist 72 hours ago a lock-out of the second row for (technically) its F1 debut.

“When it’s damp conditions like this, you have an opportunity and you have something to do. It’s always closer between the cars when the conditions are like that,” Ocon said.

“Today we maximised the potential of our car. Last time it rained, I was also starting third, so it's the second time it rains and I'm starting third, so it's a fantastic result.

“It’s great to perform like this after a difficult time for Force India. That’s totally behind us now. We are focusing on this weekend.”

The summer uncertainty may be in the past, but its memory remains. That’s why the result meant even more than it typically would have done. It proved that Force India once again is F1’s ‘little team that could’.

“It’s just great. It just shows the capacity that this team has and the future it has,” Perez said.

“Today’s a day where I want everyone to feel proud. I want Vijay, I want Bob, I want ex-members, current members, ex-drivers, everyone, to feel very proud of this team. This team is today for what all what they have done, alsothe new owners, everyone.

“It’s a massive day. It just shows the potential that this team has.”

For Ocon, the result had an added dimension, proving once again his outstanding quality and worth in F1. Nailed on for a Renault seat just six weeks ago, Ocon is now looking on the outside when it comes to a drive for 2019, falling victim of the merry-go-round of both Ricciardo’s decision to quit Red Bull and Lawrence Stroll’s purchase of Force India. He qualified P3, and it’s not even 100 percent clear if he’ll be on the grid at Monza or not.

“For sure, my future is not done at the moment. I don’t know where I will race next year or what I will do,” Ocon said.

“As I said, the only thing I can do is to do well on-track, to focus, do the same job as before, try to do the best, and if you do a strong job in Formula 1, the teams, they can't skip you. They have to have you. That's what I'm trying to do.”

Sat next to Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, Ocon then found himself subject to their praise. Hamilton was particularly vocal on the matter, who took aim at the current culture of the driver market and how drivers such as the “exceptional” Ocon could lose out.

“Unfortunately we’re in a weird place in Formula 1 where you’ve got some teams that, rather than take a new up-and-coming kid, they’ll take whoever’s got the money, which means the structure of the sport is probably wrong, and how the funds are distributed,” Hamilton said.

“I also know, once I’d signed, once Sebastian had signed, things start to fall into place, and you’ve got to be and you’ve got to be super-super quick, and make sure you’ve got good management, so they’re sharp and make sure they do their diligence and they’re ready to quick-fire in the right direction.

“I’ve not read of who’s signed where and what seats are available, but he needs to be in a great car because he’s one of the top drivers here, so I hope that opportunity is there for him.”

Vettel added: “A new guy comes in and he’s the superhero, then another guys comes in and he’s the superhero, then another guy comes in and then he’s the superhero, and then another guy comes in and he’s the new superhero.

“And by that time, the first guy is easily forgotten, even though he’s doing a very, very good job but not really considered any more, as in talked about and written about.

“That’s why I think it’s good for him to have this result today, and he should get mentioned. I think it’s his day.

“Obviously for us, you sort of expect to be there. We’ve got the cars and the consistency but, as I said, whatever the car is called he’s driving now, it doesn’t belong in P3 and he managed to do so, so well done, that should also be considered for someone signing him next year.”

At the end of a turbulent spell for Force India and Ocon, Saturday’s result will have been one of the sweetest in the history of both parties. And even if the best hope for Sunday is to be the ‘best of the rest’ and top the midfield, memories of today’s qualifying and what was achieved will remain strong for everyone at Spa.

Belgian GP - Memorable Moments

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