(REUTERS, AFP) - Red Bull’s Max Verstappen landed a big blow in his winner-takes-all title battle with Lewis Hamilton by seizing pole position on Saturday (Dec 11) for Formula One’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix .
Mercedes’ seven-time world champion Hamilton will line up alongside on the front row, with the Dutchman 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 24-year-old over the team radio, 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, 36. “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 team work,” 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 before joining Alfa Romeo.
McLaren’s Lando Norris, meanwhile, found himself facing a dilemma after seizing a “nervous” third place in qualifying.
The 22-year-old will line up on the second row, right behind the feuding pair, who have collided three times this season.
A good start could put the Briton right in the mix and upset the calculations of what Verstappen and Hamilton will be hoping is a straight, two-way fight.
“I’m a bit nervous,” Norris said after the session.
“I kind of want to just stay where I am and just watch everything unfold over the first few laps or even the whole race.
“But I obviously don’t want to really get involved too much because it can cause a lot of controversy.”
The last six winners in Abu Dhabi have all started from the front of the grid, with Verstappen victorious from pole last year.
Hamilton, seeking a historic eighth world title, was favourite to secure the final pole of 2021 after his Mercedes left Verstappen’s Red Bull trailing in his wake in practice.
But after Red Bull’s mechanics worked on Verstappen’s car overnight, the Dutchman produced a blistering flying lap in Q3.
His time of 1min 22.109sec left Hamilton over half a second behind.
That forced the Briton back onto the heavily modified Yas Marina circuit for one last throw of the dice.
But although he reduced the gap to 0.371 at a venue where he is a five-time winner, he could not knock his arch-rival off the top of the grid.
“It’s an amazing feeling, we definitely improved the car in quali,” said Verstappen.
“I’m incredibly happy with this. It’s what we wanted but it was not easy with Mercedes’ form. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, that’s the most important.”