SPA, Belgium - Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel will aim for his seventh win of the season from pole position at the Belgian Grand Prix, after holding off Lewis Hamilton's McLaren in difficult weather conditions to win Saturday's action-packed qualifying session.
The defending Formula One champion starts from the front for the ninth time this season, with his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber, celebrating his 35th birthday and a new one-year contract with Red Bull, securing third place.
Vettel has a commanding lead of 85 points over Webber in the overall standings, and leads Hamilton by 88.
Red Bull has now secured pole for every race so far this season, although Webber had looked the more likely to do so before Vettel's late burst.
Vettel had not looked particularly sharp in any of the three rain-affected practice sessions.
"I didn't feel comfortable at the beginning," he said.
But the German produced his best late in qualifying as the track started to dry out.
"I'm very happy and, although they say it's going to be dry for the race tomorrow, here you can never be sure," Vettel said. "It was a difficult session, with Q1 and Q2 very tricky, but with the circuit drying very quickly. With Lewis just in front of me I saw him locking up at the final turn and the last thing I wanted to do was lock up as well."
Vettel, who has not won for the last three GPs, joked that the only way to get a reliable weather prediction at Spa is "to look up to the sky and see what's happening" just before the race starts.
Webber, still looking for his first win this season, was disappointed to miss out on his fourth pole position.
"A tricky day for all of us, but that's Spa," Webber said. "It was a close session today. I think I went a bit too hard on the slicks (tires) initially in Q3."
Jenson Button's hopes of following up his win at the Hungarian Grand Prix took a blow as he failed to make the third and final qualifying session, and the British driver will start back in 13th on the grid.
Button was left stunned as he and his team misjudged the situation by coming in too early to cool his tires, missing the chance to do another lap.
"I was second quickest when I did my lap, and then I didn't get another chance," Button said. "That is massively disappointing and a huge shock. A big mistake on our part."
Seven-time former champion Michael Schumacher, racing at Spa 20 years after making his F1 debut on this track, crashed out on the first lap of the first qualifying session and will start the race in last place.
Felipe Massa rescued a poor session for Ferrari by taking fourth place on the grid, but two-time former F1 champion Fernando Alonso starts from eighth spot — although it could have been even worse for the Spaniard.
With the clock ticking down in the second qualifying session, Alonso was lagging in 11th place, but finally managed to get a clear run and then set the best time.
McLaren also had an eventful Q2, with Hamilton colliding with rookie Pastor Maldonado's Williams as he approached the line. The repairs were only minor and did not seem to impede Hamilton in Q3.
Hamilton was unsure what to make of the incident, although it appeared that Maldonado had cut across him.
"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," Hamilton said. "I saw Maldonado approaching quite quickly, he happened to swipe across me. My front wing was quite damaged. I'll sit here and wait for the stewards to call me up rather than going back to McLaren."
After holding a meeting, race stewards made the decision to drop Maldonado down by five grid positions, meaning the Venezuelan rookie driver will start Sunday's race in 21st place. Hamilton was given a reprimand for his part in the crash.
Meanwhile, Massa survived a scare early in Q3 when he took a corner too wide and skidded over the grass.
After heavy morning rain, the track had dried somewhat for the start of the first qualifying session, although dark clouds stretched across the 4.3-mile circuit.
Vettel closed his eyes for a few seconds as he prepared to start.
Barely a minute into qualifying, Schumacher's Mercedes slid across the track backward and hit the crash barriers, sending the car's back rear wheel tumbling down the track.
"I do not know what happened," Schumacher said over the team radio. "Something unexpected happened."
When Schumacher made his F1 race debut in 1991, he had to retire on the first lap because of a clutch failure.
Webber continued to set a fast pace early into qualifying, before Button showed his skill in the wet and demanding conditions to post the fastest time toward the end of Q1, giving no indication of the troubles he would later face.
British driver Paul di Resta, who had crashed in Friday's first practice session, span his Force India car and did not make Q2. Adrian Sutil, meanwhile, joined Schumacher in the paddock early into Q2 when his Force India ploughed nose-first into the barriers.
In the third practice session, Webber posted the fastest time.