Nico Rosberg will hope to take full advantage of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton being forced to start from the back of the grid after taking pole position at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. Hamilton, who leads Rosberg in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship by 19 points, has taken a 55-place grid penalty in Belgium for using too many engine parts and can choose to either start from the back of the grid or the pit lane.

That penalty for Hamilton, the consequence of early season engine problems, has left the door open for Rosberg to at the very least make major inroads to his championship deficit. The German delivered what was expected of him in qualifying on Saturday, securing his third successive pole position ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and the Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel.

“We had a difficult weekend until Qualifying,” Rosberg said afterward. Especially this morning we were thinking that we were off the pace a bit. So I was really happy to grab pole today.”

Nico Rosberg, Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen Nico Rosberg will start ahead of Max Verstappen, left, and Kimi Raikkonen, right, at the Belgian Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images

Yet, despite starting 20 places ahead of his title rival on the grid, Rosberg is not discounting Hamilton having something to say about the outcome of Sunday’s race.

“With some luck and a maybe a safety car, Lewis can climb up to the top very quickly, so he can't be ruled out either,” he added. “In any case, I'm pleased with my qualifying and looking forward to tomorrow. It will be an exciting and intense race.”

Hamilton completed just four laps in the first stage of qualifying in order to ensure he was eligible to start the race, while avoiding eating into tires that have been suffering all weekend in the intense heat at Spa. The two-time defending champion expects Sunday’s race to simply be a case of damage limitation.

“The key for me is making sure I come out of tomorrow having lost the fewest points possible — and that meant having as many fresh sets of tires available as possible and making sure the car was set up well. I can't say right now what the plan is — the team will know already what's best and we'll discuss that later.”

The session was certainly far from as dominant as Mercedes has been in 2016. Verstappen was only just over a tenth of a second adrift of Rosberg as he became the youngest driver in the history of Formula 1 to start on the front row of the grid. The achievement was made extra special by it coming in front of thousands of Dutch fans who had made their way across the border to support their compatriot.

“It’s a great feeling,” the 18-year-old said. “As soon as I crossed the line in Q3 on my fastest lap, I could see the fans going really wild so I knew it was a good lap. It’s been already an amazing weekend. To see so many fans around the track and feel their support is incredible and I’ve been enjoying the whole week a lot, so to be second on the grid is fantastic.”

Unlike all of those around him, though, Verstappen will start on the less durable super-soft tires. That should give his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo the advantage as the race wears on, but the Australian will still have been disappointed to only qualify down in fifth. 

The two Force India drivers, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, will start in sixth and seventh, respectively, with McLaren’s Jenson Button in ninth, sandwiched by the Williams duo of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. 

Meanwhile, Hamilton will have company at the back of the grid, with another world champion, Fernando Alonso, also incurring a huge number of engine penalties this weekend.

F1 Belgium 2016 Qualifying Results

1. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

3. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)

4. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

5. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull)

6. Sergio Perez (Force India)

7. Nicol Huldenberg (Force India)

8. Valtteri Bottas (Williams)

9. Jenson Button (McLaren)

10. Felipe Massa (Williams)

11.Romain Grosjean (Haas)

12. Kevin Magnussen (Renault)

13. Esteban Gutierrez (Haas)

14. Jolyon Palmer (Renault)

15. Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso)

16. Pascal Wehrlein (Manor)

17. Felipe Nasr (Sauber)

18. Esteban Ocon (Manor)

19. Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso)

20. Marcus Ericsson (Sauber)

21. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

22. Fernando Alonso (McLaren)

Race Time: 8 a.m. EDT

TV Channel: NBCSN

Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra