SPA // Jenson Button will start his 50th race for McLaren-Mercedes from pole position after producing a consistent, commanding performance in qualifying to lead a muddled and wholly unpredictable grid for today's Belgian Grand Prix.
The 32 year old joined the Woking-based marque ahead of the 2010 season following a triumphant year in which he won the world championship with Brawn-GP.
Yet while he tasted victory in only his second race for his new team in Australia and has gone on to secure 22 podium finishes, six of which have been victories, this afternoon's contest at Spa-Francorchamps marks the first time he will sit at the front of a grid in a McLaren.
"It's been a long time since my last pole position," said Button, whose previous experience of leading a grid came three years ago on the streets of Monte Carlo.
"Sundays have been good for the past few years, but Saturdays have not gone perfectly. I have a style that is difficult to find a car that works for me in qualifying, but when it does we can get pole. "
Yesterday's hour-long session could not have gone more to plan for Button, who was eight-tenths of a second clear midway through qualifying before improving on his time twice to eventually top the timesheet by three-tenths.
Lewis Hamilton, Button's teammate, finished seventh after running an older wing specification during qualifying after not being happy with the new version in final practice earlier in the day, and soon after tweeted that his compatriot "should win easy with that speed".
The tweet was later deleted from his account.
Button likened the feeling of being back on pole to being "close to winning a grand prix for me because it's been so long" but appreciates points are not awarded on a Saturday during a grand prix weekend.
The Englishman trails world championship leader Fernando Alonso by 88 points and admits if he harbours hopes of reviving a title challenge finishing on the top step of the podium this afternoon is essential.
"A lot of people ask me if I am still driving for the championship," he said.
"It is a long shot - I'm 80 or so points behind Fernando - so I need to be on the podium and finish ahead of him every race, which is not easy given his consistency.
"This is a good start, but a race win is important to fight for the championship."
Button's hopes will be helped by the order of the grid immediately behind him where few of his championship rivals are in proximity.
Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber will become the first Japanese driver in F1 history to start on the front row, while Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus' Finnish driver, starts third after Williams' Pastor Maldonado was given a three-place grid penalty for being found guilty by the stewards of impeding Force India's Nico Hulkenberg.
Alonso, who has never won in Belgium in eight attempts, starts fifth, behind Sergio Perez, Kobayashi's teammate.
Kobayashi, a driver renowned for his risk-taking manoeuvres, played down his intentions of taking the race to Button, saying his team's focus today is solely on scoring as many points as possible after exceeding their low expectations by claiming Sauber's first front-row start since Jean Alesi started second at the French Grand Prix in 1999.
"We expected a really good performance this weekend because Spa is one of our favourite circuits and our car should be good here, but, of course, I didn't expect second in qualifying," he said.
"We're usually quite strong in the race, but not strong in quali, so we have a really great opportunity. But I definitely have to say it's not a risk race, we need to manage it well."
Raikkonen remains without a win since returning to the sport after a two-year hiatus, despite having one of the quickest cars on the grid.
He is predicted to be Alonso's strongest challenger for the championship in the second half of the season and having won at Spa four times, the 32 year old is content with his starting position given the Lotus has usually been quicker on race day than in qualifying during the season thus far.
"We were certainly not quick enough for pole, but the race is a different story," he said.
"We're in front of the guys who are ahead of us in the championship, so we'll try to score more points than them."
& Gary Meenaghan