Max Verstappen claimed pole position for the final race of the Formula One season in Abu Dhabi. The Dutchman was mighty in his commanding lap to take the first pole for Red Bull this season and beat the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton into second and third. McLaren’s Lando Norris was in fourth and Verstappen’s teammate Alexander Albon in fifth.
Bottas had set the best time on his first hot run in Q3, with a 1min 35.415sec. It was a fine lap but Verstappen in second was only a tenth off, as was Hamilton in third. There was little to choose between all three of them, with Bottas’s control through the middle sector proving the differentiator. Heading out for their final runs Hamilton was leading the way for Mercedes and promptly found more pace. He was quickest thought sector one and again improved in the crucial middle sector and held it together for the run to the line to put in a 1:35.332 lap.
Yet it was not enough. Bottas too improved but behind them Verstappen was mighty, throwing his car to the limit through the middle sector to claim a stunning pole with a time of 1:35.246, just two-hundredths in front of Bottas and eight-hundredths up on Hamilton. It is the first time Mercedes have been denied the top spot in Abu Dhabi since the turbo-hybrid era began.
With overtaking very tricky on this anodyne car park in the desert, track position is vital and Verstappen is in the perfect position to dictate from the front.
This is a first pole of the season for Red Bull and the Dutchman, and the third of his career, in what has been almost complete dominance by Mercedes over the single-lap discipline. This is only the second time in 2020 Mercedes have been denied pole and is a real boost for Verstappen, who has endured five DNFs this season.
Hamilton was disappointed but had said he did not feel under any pressure to make a point with his performance in Abu Dhabi after coming back from the coronavirus. He was, he said, just enormously happy to back driving after the 10 days he spent in isolation and enduring what Bottas described as a far from mild experience of the virus.
He tested negative on Wednesday and entered Abu Dhabi on Thursday, where a further negative test ensured he was allowed to take part in the meeting. The enforced absence had not pleased the world champion, who had made 265 consecutive F1 starts.
The pole also represents a real fillip for Red Bull, after their engine supplier, Honda, announced before the race at the Nürburgring that they are withdrawing from F1 at the end of 2021. The announcement has left Red Bull with questions as to where they go for a power unit in future and they appear to be pursuing taking over the Honda engines themselves. Honda remain fully committed for this season and next, however, and Verstappen gave ample demonstration of how far they have come and how competitive both engine and car are now proving.
Hamilton has sealed the title but Verstappen still has a very faint chance at second place. He is 16 points behind Bottas, who will secure second with a finish of fifth or better.
Red Bull have second place in the constructors’ championship sealed but behind them the tussle for third remains. Racing Point lead on 194 points, 12 clear of McLaren, with Renault a further 12 behind in fifth.
Hamilton was quickest in Q1 and on top again in Q2, where he and the leaders set their times on the medium tyres with which they will start the race and giving them the option to try a one-stop strategy.
Charles Leclerc was in ninth for Ferrari but has a three-place gird penalty for causing a collision at the Sakhir GP. Carlos Sainz was in sixth for McLaren. AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly were in seventh and 10th, with Lance Stroll in eighth for Racing Point.
Sergio Pérez, who won last week’s race for Racing Point, was in 15th but will start from the back of the grid after taking new a new engine. Renault’s Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo were in 11th and 12th. Sebastian Vettel, in his last race for Ferrari, went out in 13th, with Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi in 14th.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen was in 16th, with Kevin Magnussen and Pietro Fittipaldi in 17th and 19th for Haas. George Russell, back at Williams after qualifying second last weekend for Mercedes, was in 18th, with his teammate Nicholas Latifi in 20th. Latifi is also under investigation for an unsafe release.