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Raikkonen fastest in final Belgian GP practice; Vettel 2nd


SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) On a track loved by Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton equaled the Formula One great's record by securing a 68th pole position at the Belgian Grand Prix on Saturday.

''It's a special day, definitely,'' Hamilton said. ''I feel very proud to be up there with him.''

The Mercedes driver was in great form on the Spa circuit, leading through qualifying to finish 0.242 seconds clear of rival Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari.

Schumacher, who won a record seven F1 titles and 91 race wins in his glittering career, also holds the record for wins in Spa with six - one more than another F1 great, the late Ayrton Senna.

Hamilton recalled watching his first F1 race - in Spa and won by Schumacher.

''I remember coming here in 1996 for my first Grand Prix and watching Michael coming by and the sound of the engine just shook my rib cage, incredible,'' Hamilton said. ''That's when my love for the sport took another step. To think I've now equaled him is surreal.''

Even when he played racing games on a video console as a youth, Hamilton would usually drive as Schumacher.

''I was Michael the majority of the time,'' said Hamilton, who recalled a special moment in his real career. ''Abu Dhabi, when I plucked up the courage to ask if he would swap helmets with me, and he did. That's one of the coolest things I have in my house.''

Schumacher won five of his seven world championships with Ferrari from 2000-04.

The F1 season continues next week in Italy, where Schumacher holds God-like status among Ferrari's fans. It would be a strange place, perhaps, for Hamilton to beat his record should he get pole at Monza, but it might also be a fitting one.

''If I dedicate it to him, it could the best tribute,'' Hamilton said.

The current condition of the 48-year-old Schumacher's health remains closely guarded among family and close associates.

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It was while skiing with his teenage son Mick on a family holiday that Schumacher sustained severe head injuries in France on Dec. 29, 2013. He has been cared for at his home in Switzerland since September 2014. Schumacher hit the right side of his head on a rock, cracking his helmet. Doctors operated to remove blood clots from his brain, but some were left because they were too deeply embedded.

''I pray for Michael and his family all the time,'' said three-time F1 champion Hamilton, who enters his 200th GP on Sunday.

The 30-year-old Vettel's fond memories of Schumacher date even further back than Hamilton's.

''(Since) the age of six or seven. I met him for the first time, he was handing over the trophies for the kids at the Go-kart track (in Germany). More than 100 kids, but he took the time to shake all our hands,'' Vettel said. ''He was my hero, I had his posters all over my room ... I think the admiration for his skills is still the same as day one.''

Hamilton and Vettel have four wins each, heading into the 12th race of a gripping season.

Championship leader Vettel is 14 points ahead of Hamilton, who has generally done better in qualifying.

Hamilton was already ahead Saturday when he went even faster with a blistering final lap for Mercedes, but Vettel then produced a fine lap of his own. Valtteri Bottas was third and Kimi Raikonnen fourth. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, racing in front of a huge contingent of traveling Dutch fans, qualified fifth ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

Hamilton was met on track by Ross Brawn, the F1 managing director of motorsports, who delivered a special message of praise to Hamilton from Schumacher's family.

''Schumacher always said records are there to be beaten and they want to say a special `thanks,''' Brawn told Hamilton.

Schumacher's pole record was achieved in a little more than 300 races. But while Hamilton is second all-time with 57 GP wins, he remains 34 behind Schumacher's record.

Hamilton celebrated his latest pole by tapping the nose of his car and clenching both fists.

Bottas jokingly compared himself to teammate Hamilton, saying ''I've only got two pole positions, so there's some way to go.''