Lewis Hamilton celebrates after taking pole for the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium on Saturday. Image Credit: AP

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium: Lewis Hamilton tip-toed his way to a memorable record fifth pole position at the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday as he and Mercedes handled the capricious weather conditions at the famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit with tactical aplomb.

The championship leader produced a decisive lap in the final drying seconds of a rain-hit session in one minute and 58.179 seconds to outpace nearest rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, who is 24 points behind him in the title race, by 0.726 seconds.

“That was excruciating, an awesome lap, you really nailed it in that last sector,” Hamilton’s race engineer Pete Bonnington told him on team radio.

“That was one of the toughest I can remember,” said Hamilton, who had claimed the 78th pole of his career thanks to well-timed laps in the improving conditions at the end of the session.

Esteban Ocon took third place for the re-born Force India team, under new ownership, ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean of Haas, their teams taking a positive view of the conditions and timing their tyre-changes perfectly.

Kimi Raikkonen, in the second Ferrari, had looked a likely front-row qualifier before heavy rain swept across the circuit and he ended up sixth ahead of Max Verstappen and his Renault-bound Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

Kevin Magnussen, in the second Haas, was ninth and Valtteri Bottas, in the second Mercedes, 10th, with the Finn knowing that he starts Sunday’s race from the back of the grid after collecting grid penalties for taking a limit-breaking fourth new engine.

Earlier, Sebastian Vettel topped the times as he and Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen dominated the third and final free practice session. The German four-time champion, who is 24 points behind defending champion Lewis Hamilton in this year’s title race, clocked a best lap in 1min 42.661sec.

This put him 0.063sec clear of Raikkonen with fellow four-time champion Hamilton third for Mercedes, one-tenth adrift, ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas, eight-tenths down. Bottas will start Sunday’s race from the back of the grid after taking penalties for using a new engine.

Dutchman Max Verstappen, backed by thousands of his ‘orange army’ of fans who had made the short journey over the border, was fifth ahead of his Red Bull teammate, Renault-bound Daniel Ricciardo.