By Abhishek Takle
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) - Max Verstappen will have an unhindered view of the first corner at the start of Sunday’s Belgian Formula One Grand Prix, but the Dutchman will have his sights set far beyond that after securing the maiden front-row start of his fledgling career.
The 18-year-old will start the race at the 7-kilometre-longSpa-Francorchamps circuit alongside Mercedes' Nico Rosberg,after setting a time just 0.149 seconds slower than the German’s best in qualifying.
That display, which Verstappen delivered despite missing the final practice session on Saturday morning with a gearbox problem, gave his legions of orange-clad supporters thronging the grandstands plenty to cheer about.
With his Red Bull team appearing to be within striking distance of dominant Mercedes, it has also raised the prospect of a Verstappen victory in a race that is the closest the Belgium-born driver has to a home event.
“I’m just very pleased to be second here in front of my fans,” said Verstappen, whose mother is Belgian.
“In the end, to be so close to them (Mercedes) on a track with some long straights, we can be very pleased with that.
“The whole weekend has been very smooth … and in qualifying the car was working really well,” said Verstappen, who had ended Friday’s opening day of practice top of the timesheets.
Verstappen, son of former racer Jos, won on his Red Bull debut in May's Spanish Grand Prix and has stood on the podium a further three times since.
Sunday’s race will be the third in a row that Rosberg will start from pole.
But the 31-year-old was beaten off the line in both Hungary and Germany and Verstappen, who also becomes the youngest ever driver to start from the front row, will be hoping to emerge from the tight La Source hairpin in the lead.
Whether he will be able to retain it is another question, though, as, starting on the fragile super-soft tyre, he will be forced to pit sooner than Rosberg, who will begin on the more durable soft.
“We have some different strategies out there but I think at the end of the day, yeah, I have to box (pit) a bit earlier,” said Verstappen.
“I think that’s the best strategy to go into tomorrow - but we’ll see how it pays off.”
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle,; Editing by Neville Dalton)