Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has landed a big blow in his winner-takes-all title battle with Lewis Hamilton by seizing pole position for Formula One’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Mercedes’ seven-time world champion Hamilton will line up alongside on the front row on Sunday, with Verstappen on the quicker soft tyres for the start and the Briton going for the more durable mediums.
The pair are level on points in the standings, with Verstappen ahead 9-8 on race wins, meaning he will be champion regardless of where he finishes if Hamilton fails to score for any reason.
“I didn’t expect that, but amazing job guys,” said the Dutch 24-year-old over the team radio on Saturday after being told he had secured pole under the Yas Marina floodlights for the second successive season.
“That was a fantastic lap from him,” said Hamilton.
“We’re in a good position with our tyres for tomorrow and I hope we can have a good race.”
The pole was Verstappen’s 10th of the 22-race season, more than anyone else, and he was helped with a vital slipstream ‘tow’ down the straights behind his ever-helpful Mexican teammate Sergio Perez, who qualified fourth.
“It was a great teamwork,” said Perez. “Very pleased for Max that I managed to support him there.”
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas qualified only sixth in his last race for Mercedes.
Daniel Ricciardo will start the race in 10th on the grid while his McLaren teammate Lando Norris again outqualified him, finishing a superb third ahead of Perez.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said Verstappen’s lap of one minute 22.109 seconds was one of his best of the year and the Dutch driver sounded remarkably relaxed given the amount of pressure on him.
“It’s very important to have a good start and from there onwards we just try to do our race to the very best, then we’ll see where we end up,” said the 2020 race winner.
Hamilton had been fastest in practice and the first phase of qualifying but Verstappen was top in the second phase after he ‘flat-spotted’ his set of medium tyres and switched to the soft Pirellis.
“The lockup wasn’t ideal so it kind of forced our hand,” said Horner.
Hamilton had lapped nearly half a second faster than Verstappen to top the first session ahead of Bottas, with both doing a run more than the Red Bull driver, but ended up with a best effort of 1:22.480.
The first phase was briefly halted for a loose bollard to be removed after it was hit by Haas driver Mick Schumacher and then run over by McLaren’s Lando Norris.
George Russell, 17th, was outqualified by Williams team mate Nicholas Latifi in the Briton’s final session before replacing Bottas next season.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion with Ferrari, will start his 349th and final race before retirement in 18th place.
Hamilton admits Verstappen was too good
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton has admitted that he had no answer to his Dutch rival’s flying lap.
Hamilton was ultimately pleased to qualify second after conceding his Mercedes could not match the one minute 22.109 seconds which saw Verstappen seal pole.
The Brit also joked that he was pleased to know where his rival would be given the suggestions he could be run off the track.
“Max did a great lap today so we just couldn’t compete with that time at the end. It was looking really strong in practice,” he said.
“We couldn’t answer that lap, it was a fantastic lap from him, but we are in a good position.
“I couldn’t beat that time he did today and he fully deserved the pole. I’m grateful I can see where he is.
“The car was good, Max did a great job on that final lap. Generally, through practice and into qualifying, the car felt solid.
“The last two laps weren’t easy…I definitely can’t complain, but of course we wish we were a bit quicker today.”
Verstappen did not have it all his own way, however, as he flat-spotted what would have been his race tyre having run wide during the second qualifying session.
The Red Bull will now start on the soft tyre, seemingly not the best race compound, with Hamilton set to start on the preferred medium rubber.
Team boss Christian Horner admitted the flat spot had “forced the hand” of Red Bull on race strategy.
“It is an amazing feeling,” said Verstappen.
“We definitely improved the car again in qualifying. So far this weekend it has been on and off, but I’m incredibly happy with this. It is never easy, especially with their form in the past few races.
“I felt good on both tyres. Naturally in the evening it is a bit cooler, so it should be easier for the soft tyres, but we will see tomorrow.
“Of course in Q2 I had my flat spot on the mediums and had to go out on the softs again. The car felt pretty decent in these final two laps.”