YAS MARINA, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AFP) - Red Bull's Max Verstappen clinched his maiden pole position of the campaign on Saturday (Dec 12) for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Dutch driver edged Valterri Bottas in second and the Finn's Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who is racing for the first time since winning the championship after contracting coronavirus, in third for Sunday's Grand Prix.
It was Verstappen's first pole since the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix and the third of his career after clocking his best lap in one minute and 35.246 seconds to beat Bottas by 0.025 seconds.
The top three were separated by only 0.086sec, but it was a disappointment for Mercedes who missed out on pole for only the second time this year. Lance Stroll of the Mercedes-powered Racing Point team claimed the other.
Lando Norris, equalling his previous best, was fourth for McLaren ahead of Alex Albon in the second Red Bull and Carlos Sainz in the second McLaren.
Having said on Thursday he expected to claim 'his seat' for third place again, Verstappen was delighted.
"I am very happy with that. It was a tricky qualifying, but luckily everything came together for me in that final lap," he said.
"It's a long season for everyone with a lot of races in a row so this was good for the whole team." Hamilton said he gave it his best, following his illness.
"Honestly, I am really grateful to be back with the team - it's been a difficult weekend getting back in the rhythm," the Briton said.
"I gave it my all. Congratulations to Max. It's a great way for him to seal a year of great performances. We will give them a good run for their money.
Kevin Magnussen was the first man out, followed by his Haas team-mate Pietro Fittipaldi, as the sun began to fall at the Yas Marina Circuit and, most probably, on the Dane's F1 career in the American team's 100th Grand Prix.
Hamilton had his early best lap deleted for exceeding track limits with a bumpy ride over the kerbs.
"Check the floor. I might have some damage," he told Mercedes.
After another run, the champion was seventh and in the comfort zone to proceed to Q2 as Verstappen, fastest in a Red Bull 1-2 in FP3, rose to second, three-tenths off Bottas.
As Q3 began, under full floodlights around the track, Stroll went first, but Norris set the early pace before being deposed by Sainz.
The Mercedes men, back to full power, re-joined the fray with Bottas shading Hamilton for provisional pole, Verstappen splitting them for Red Bull and Albon taking fourth.
Only 0.156 seconds covered the top after their first runs, during which Hamilton made a small error. It set up a classic finale in which Hamilton went top, only to be beaten by Bottas and then a breathless Verstappen with only seconds remaining.