(Reuters) – Max Verstappen landed the first 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 on Saturday.
Mercedes’ seven-times world champion Hamilton will line up alongside on the front row, 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 after being told he had secured pole for the second successive season at Yas Marina.
He was 0.371 of a second quicker than Hamilton, who had been more than half a second adrift after the first flying laps of the final session and could not find enough to close the gap.
Booed by some in the crowd as he was doing television interviews under the floodlights, the Briton said his rival deserved to be on pole.
The two fiercest of competitors on track showed there was still plenty of mutual respect with a fist bump after parking up their cars.
“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.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said it was 1-0 to Red Bull but Hamilton would be fired up for Sunday’s day to night race.
The pole was Verstappen’s 10th of the 22-race season, more than anyone else, and he was helped with a slipstream ‘tow’ down the straights behind ever-helpful Mexican team mate Sergio Perez, who qualified fourth.
“It was a great team work,” said Perez. “Very pleased for Max that I managed to support him there.”
McLaren’s Lando Norris will line up third and with a dilemma for Sunday’s race over whether to be aggressive at the start or let the title contenders fight their own battle.
“I obviously don’t want to really get involved too much because it can cause a lot of controversy,” he said.
Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas qualified only sixth in his last race for Mercedes.
Team boss Christian Horner said Verstappen’s lap of one minute 22.109 seconds was ‘insane’ and one of his best, even if the Dutch driver sounded remarkably relaxed.
“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 was fastest in practice and the first phase of qualifying but Verstappen led the second phase after he locked up and ‘flat-spotted’ one of his medium tyres, forcing a switch to softs.
“The lockup wasn’t ideal so it kind of forced our hand,” said Horner.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz qualified fifth with team mate Charles Leclerc seventh.
AlphaTauri’s Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda lines up eighth, Alpine Esteban Ocon ninth and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo completed the top 10.
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 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.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris and Christian Radnedge)