After a gruelling season, Red Bull could not have hoped to close the final qualifying shootout in any better way than with Max Verstappen’s stunning lap for pole position at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The team’s garage erupted with unbridled joy when the Dutchman defied the odds to beat the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton into second and third.
For Hamilton there was disappointment in his comeback after contracting coronavirus, but he said he is still recovering – “I am not 100%” – and expressed his empathy for the victims of the pandemic.
Verstappen was mighty in his commanding lap to take the first pole for Red Bull this season and, significantly, the first time Mercedes have been defeated in qualifying in dry conditions this year. With 17 meetings taking place since 5 July and barely a chink in the Mercedes armour throughout, this was a huge fillip for Red Bull.
“It’s a long season for everyone, a lot of races in a row,” said Verstappen. “It was a good final qualifying for everyone in the team, we’re very happy with it. The whole year when you are behind and getting closer is a bit frustrating but very, very pleased with today.”
Hamilton honoured by Silverstone
There was some cause for delight for Lewis Hamilton as Silverstone said it will name the finishing straight the Hamilton Straight in recognition of the seven-times world champion’s achievements. Silverstone’s owners, the British Racing Drivers’ Club, “felt this unique honour was an appropriate way to recognise Lewis cementing his position as the most successful driver in the history of Formula One”. No other part of the British Grand Prix circuit is named after a racing driver.
Mercedes had been on top throughout the session for the season finale at the Yas Marina circuit but Verstappen saved his best for last. On his final hot run in Q3 he pushed his car to the limit through the middle sector to claim pole in 1min 35.246sec, just two-hundredths in front of Bottas and eight-hundredths up on Hamilton.
Hamilton was sanguine in that he was just happy to have returned to racing after what had been a draining experience having contracted Covid-19 and been in isolation until Thursday. “I can really feel for those who have suffered from it and those who have lost [loved] ones from it,” he said. “I can understand how because it is a nasty virus. I am not 100%. I still have that feeling within my lungs, but I would drive if one of my arms was hanging off.
It definitely won’t be the easiest of races but I will give it everything I have got.”
The world champion said he had been bedridden for much of his isolation and was not back to full fitness. “It’s overall energy, one of the symptoms is it really drains you,” he said. “Recharging has not been easy, I have lost a good amount of weight just in that week.”
For Red Bull, however, the pole is a shot in the arm after their engine supplier, Honda, announced before the race at the Nürburgring they are withdrawing from F1 at the end of 2021. That left the team with questions as to where they go for a power unit in future and they appear to be pursuing the idea of taking over the Honda engines themselves.
Verstappen gave ample demonstration of how competitive engine and car are now proving. With overtaking tricky on this anodyne car park, track position is vital and the Dutchman is in the perfect position to potentially secure the team’s second win this season. Hamilton has already won the title but Verstappen still has a faint chance of 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, 10 clear of McLaren with Renault a further 12 behind in fifth.
McLaren’s Lando Norris drove superbly to take fourth, and Verstappen’s teammate, Alexander Albon, was fifth. Charles Leclerc was ninth for Ferrari, but has a three-place grid 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 19th 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 16th fastest, with Kevin Magnussen and Pietro Fittipaldi 17th and 19th for Haas. Magnussen will start from the back of the grid after taking a new engine. George Russell was 18th fastest for Williams with his teammate Nicholas Latifi 20th.