Max Verstappen stunned championship rival Lewis Hamilton by taking a comfortable pole position for the season-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Hamilton started qualifying as the favorite after a strong series of practice sessions, whereas a lackluster Saturday practice left the Dutchman as the underdog, the Red Bull Racing car apparently off the pace.
Matters seemed to get only worse for Verstappen in Q2, when a lock-up on what should have been his race-starting set of medium tires forced him to switch to softs and what is thought to be an inferior strategy for the grand prix.
But come the pole shootout, Red Bull Racing and its Dutch prodigy pulled a blinder. Deploying Sergio Perez for a slipstream down the second back straight and into Turn 9, Verstappen constructed a lap heavily loaded with performance in the final two sectors to take a half-second lead over Hamilton after the pair’s first laps.
Hamilton’s first attempt had been scruffy and visibly distant from the limit, and the Briton was the first out of pit lane for his second lap to take advantage of the clear air — but, crucially, without the aid of a teammate-facilitated tow. He improved his time, but not nearly by enough, cutting his deficit to a still substantial 0.371s and guaranteeing Verstappen pole without the championship leader needing to improve his time.
“It is of course an amazing feeling,” said the jubilant Verstappen. “We definitely improved the car again in qualifying because so far this weekend has been on and off.
“I was very relaxed going into qualifying. I always do the best I can, and I know my team always give me the best possible car. We’ve been doing that all year and again today that worked really well.”
On pole for the final race of an incredible season 🚀
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 11, 2021
Only the need to switch starting compound from medium to soft clouded an otherwise sublime evening for Verstappen, but the 24-year-old was unfazed by the strategic difference between him and Hamilton despite it potentially requiring him to make an additional stop.
“I’m just looking forward to tomorrow, because that’s of course most important,” he said. “We’ll just try to do the race to our very best, and we’ll see where we end up.”
Hamilton conceded pole was out of his grasp despite an improved second lap, but he remained buoyed by starting on the front row with a clear view to the first apex.
“We couldn’t answer to that lap — that was a fantastic lap to him,” he said. “The last lap was nice and clean, I just couldn’t go any quicker.
“We’re in a good position, I’d like to think, with our tires tomorrow … I’m still on the front row.”
Hamilton’s day was made worse by teammate Valtteri Bottas struggling to a distant sixth on the grid and likely out of reach strategically without a strong start.
But Lando Norris prevented Red Bull Racing from maximizing the damage dealt by edging Sergio Perez for third by just 0.016s, and the McLaren driver admitted the possibility of becoming an inadvertent player in the title fight was on his mind.
“To be P3 was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “I’m a bit nervous because I kind of want to stay right out of it and watch everything unfold … I don’t want to get involved too much, because it could cause a bit of controversy.”
Carlos Sainz qualified fifth for Ferrari ahead of Bottas, with teammate Charles Leclerc sandwiching the Finn from seventh.
Yuki Tsunoda impressively outqualified teammate Pierre Gasly to make Q3 and end the evening eighth, but the Japanese driver could have done even better had his first lap not been deleted for running wide exiting the first corner. That time would have been good enough to pip Bottas for sixth.
Esteban Ocon qualified ninth for Alpine, while Daniel Ricciardo completed the top 10 for McLaren.
Fernando Alonso was topped by 0.012s for a spot in the pole shootout, but the veteran was substantially quicker than the rest of his fellow Q2 peers.
Pierre Gasly will start the race from 12th and almost 0.6s further back relative to Alonso, with Lance Stroll fractionally behind for Aston Martin.
Antonio Giovinazzi made Q2 in his last Formula 1 appearance for the foreseeable future and will start 14th ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Aston Martin car, whose final lap was ruined by a glut of cars slowing ot find space at the end of the qualifying segment.
Nicholas Latifi outqualified Williams teammate George Russell by a little less than 0.1s, with Russell bemoaning his and the team’s approach to tire preparation during Q1.
Kimi Raikkonen will start his last Formula 1 grand prix from a lowly 18th, having been unable to match the pace of Q2-bound teammate Antonio Giovinazzi.
Haas teammates Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin will start at the back of the grid. Schumacher was around two seconds off the pace, whereas Mazepin shipped another 0.8s to the German by the end of the hour.