Lewis Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher's Formula One record of 68 pole positions in style, leading qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix from start to finish on Saturday. The three-time F1 champion was already ahead when he went even faster with a blistering final lap for Mercedes, but Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel limited the damage with a fine lap of his own to join Hamilton on the front row. Valtteri Bottas was third and Kimi Raikkonen fourth.
Hamilton, who races his 200th GP on Sunday and trails Vettel by 14 points overall this season, was quick to praise Schumacher.
"It's very surreal and very much a humbling experience, knowing Michael's such a legend," Hamilton said. "I have always admired him. I am honoured to be there with him now on pole positions, but he will still be one of the greatest of all time."
Hamilton was met on track by Ross Brawn, the F1 managing director of motorsports, who delivered a special message of praise to Hamilton from Schumacher's family.
"Schumacher always said records are there to be beaten and they want to say a special 'thanks,'" Brawn told Hamilton.
The current condition of the 48-year-old Schumacher's health remains closely guarded by family and close associates.
It was while skiing with his teenage son Mick on a family holiday that Schumacher sustained severe head injuries in France on Dec. 29, 2013. He has been cared for at his home in Switzerland since September 2014. Schumacher hit the right side of his head on a rock, cracking his helmet.
Doctors operated to remove blood clots from his brain, but some were left because they were too deeply embedded.
"I pray for Michael and his family all the time," said Hamilton, who made his debut at the Australian GP 10 years ago.
Schumacher's pole record was achieved in a little more than 300 races. But while Hamilton is second all-time with 57 GP wins, he remains far behind Schumacher's whopping 91.
Schumacher won the last of his record seven F1 titles in 2004. Hamilton's titles came with McLaren in 2008 and with Mercedes in '14 and '15.
Hamilton celebrated his latest pole by tapping the nose of his car and clenching both fists.
"I've only got two pole positions, so there's some way to go," Bottas joked, comparing himself with teammate Hamilton. "Lewis has been really on it, but I'm slightly confused why I've not been able to get close enough. Still, need to find some answers."
Vettel, who grew up with Schumacher as his racing idol, walked over briskly to shake Hamilton's hand.
He also thanked Raikkonen.
"I had a little bit of help from a friend," Vettel said. "Kimi had to abort his lap on the last sector and gave me a nice tow — that got me about two-tenths (of a second)."
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, racing in front of a huge contingent of travelling Dutch fans, qualified fifth ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
Five drivers are eliminated from Q1 and Q2, leaving the top 10 fighting it out in Q3.
Hamilton topped Q1 ahead of Vettel and led Q2 from Bottas.
Earlier, Raikkonen and Vettel boosted Ferrari with the top two times in final practice.
Moments after it ended, Ferrari announced that the 30-year-old German driver has signed a new contract for another three years.
Meanwhile, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne is having a stressful weekend so far at his home race.
He was hit with a whopping 65-place grid penalty for making two engine changes and a gearbox change on his McLaren.
Teams are only allowed to make four specification changes on the power unit per season, with further engine changes incurring penalties. McLaren has easily exceeded that number.
With only 20 drivers on the grid, the 65-place penalty is essentially irrelevant because it does not carry over to the next race.
It has not been a smooth Spa ride for Brazilian Felipe Massa, either.
He missed all of the second practice after crashing in P1 and was given a five-place grid penalty on Saturday after failing to slow down for the yellow flag following an incident involving Daniel Kvyat's stranded Toro Rosso.
Massa skipped the Hungarian GP last month after complaining of dizzy spells but said he had fully recovered for Belgium.