SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) - Jenson Button celebrated his 50th Formula One race for McLaren by ending a three-year wait to claim pole position in qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday.
The pole was Button's first since the 2009 Monaco Grand Prix, the year he won a memorable championship with Brawn GP, and his first at McLaren and at the majestic Spa circuit.
Kamui Kobayashi put his Sauber on the front row, a career best for him and only the second time a Japanese driver has qualified so high on the grid.
Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado was third fastest for Williams, his best qualifying display since he started on pole in Spain in May, but stewards later handed him a three-place penalty for impeding Force India's Nico Hulkenberg.
That elevated Kimi Raikkonen to third for Lotus.
"It's been quite a long time since I got my last pole position," grinned Button who whooped with delight after being told he was 'P1' over the team radio on a sunlit afternoon after heavy rain washed out Friday's practice.
"It's pretty emotional ... it's so important to come back after such a long break with a good result on Saturday," added the Briton, referring to the August shutdown following the previous race in Hungary in July.
"I know the race is tomorrow but this is close to winning a grand prix for me, it's been so long," said Button who had complained in final practice that his car lacked balance.
Button, who now has eight career poles to his credit, is only seventh in the championship and a massive 88 points adrift of Ferrari's overall leader Fernando Alonso but has refused to give up hope.
The Briton has never won at Spa and nor has Alonso, who can rack up a record-equalling 24th successive points finish on Sunday. The Spaniard will be fifth on the grid behind the two Ferrari-powered Saubers.
Alonso's closest title rival, Red Bull's Mark Webber, was seventh fastest but has a five-place penalty due to an unscheduled gearbox change.
Raikkonen, the driver with the best record at Spa in recent years with four wins at the longest circuit on the calendar, will be third on the grid for Lotus ahead of Sauber's Sergio Perez of Mexico.
Sauber's form was an eye-opener, with Kobayashi only the second Japanese to start a grand prix on the front row. The other was Takuma Sato who qualified second for the 2004 European Grand Prix at Nuerburgring.
"We expected a good weekend but not to be second in qualifying. We expected a strong result so we have a good chance in the race," said Kobayashi who was just 3/10ths of a second behind Button.
The Swiss team have not qualified on the front row this century with their last - and second ever - appearance at the sharpest end of the grid coming at the 1999 French Grand Prix with Frenchman Jean Alesi.
Button's team mate Lewis Hamilton will start seventh, helped by Webber's penalty.
"We opted to use an old wing this weekend. After P3 (final practice), the new one wasn't feeling so great. We went to the old wing and it was an awful lot slower," said 2008 champion Hamilton who won in Budapest from pole.
Red Bull's double world champion Sebastian Vettel failed to make the final phase of qualifying but will start 10th due to his team mate's demotion to 12th.
Further back there was dismay for Mercedes who saw Nico Rosberg fail to get through the first session. The German will start 23rd due to a five-place penalty.
His illustrious team mate Michael Schumacher, celebrating his 300th grand prix at the circuit where he made his debut in 1991, starts 13th.
(Editing by Matt Barker)