Leclerc takes pole position ahead of Vettel for Belgian GP

Pit crew inspect the damaged car of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain after Hamilton hit a barrier during the third practice session ahead of the Belgian Formula One at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. The Belgian Formula One race will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Charles Leclerc took the third pole position of his promising career by finishing comfortably ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel on a dominant weekend so far for Ferrari

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — Charles Leclerc took the third pole position of his promising career on Saturday, comfortably ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel in a dominant Belgian Grand Prix so far for Ferrari.

Leclerc beat his own leading time to finish .748 seconds clear of Vettel and .763 ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Valtteri Bottas was .896 behind in fourth.

Although Leclerc is in his first season with Ferrari, and only his second in Formula One, he leads four-time F1 champion Vettel 3-1 in pole positions so far this year.

Hamilton, F1's record holder with 87 poles, praised the 21-year-old driver from Monaco.

"Charles did an exceptional job," Hamilton said. "I hope we can bring the fight to them tomorrow."

After mangling his Mercedes in practice, Hamilton almost had another incident when he narrowly avoided bumping into his teammate Bottas.

Ferrari secured a 1-2 in all three practice sessions and all three sections of qualifying, boosting hopes of a first win this season and first since former driver Kimi Raikkonen's success at the United States GP last October.

Vettel's last win was on this track last year. There have been 20 GPs without one since for the German driver.

Earlier, Hamilton apologized to his Mercedes team after a rare mistake saw him crash during the third and final practice.

The runaway Formula One leader lost control coming out of the Fanges chicane, veering left at full speed into the protective tire barriers and mangling the nose of his car.

"It was a terrible session for me when you know how hard these guys work to build a car," Hamilton said. "I was just trying to pay them back with a good qualifying session."

Hamilton later played down the mistake, saying "You're looking at it way too deeply ... I'm only human."

Still, for a driver who rarely makes mistakes, it was a surprising moment.

That session was interrupted as Hamilton's car was taken away. The British driver walked slowly back to the team garage and Mercedes mechanics faced a race against the clock to get the car ready for qualifying.

"There's so much pressure on these guys," Hamilton said. "They relish the challenge (and) did an exceptional job."

Mercedes repaired the front corners — the suspension and wheel assemblies — the nose and floor. They were still working on the car when qualifying started. They got a bit more time than expected after the first part of qualifying — Q1 — was held up after the back of Robert Kubica's car caught fire following an engine combustion failure, sending a cloak of smoke around his Racing Point car.

Q1 was halted a second time with seconds remaining after Italian Antonio Giovinazzi pulled up to the side of the track with a power failure.

In third and final practice, Leclerc was .451 seconds quicker than Vettel in warm and sunny conditions in the Ardennes Forest.

They topped one practice each on Friday and again looked significantly quicker than Mercedes in terms of straight-line speed on F1's longest track at 7 kilometers (4.3 miles).

Leclerc's leading time in the final practice was about half a second quicker than Bottas in third and 1.36 faster than Hamilton in seventh. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault), Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Sergio Perez (Racing Point) were all quicker than Hamilton.

It was a tricky day for Hamilton on Friday, too, as he experienced a throttle problem in the first practice and had visibility problems with his helmet visor in the second.

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