Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton said Max Verstappen deserved pole position for their title showdown after the Dutchman pulled out a blinding lap under floodlights in Saturday’s qualifying for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The 24-year-old’s Red Bull had looked slower than Hamilton’s Mercedes in terms of outright speed going into qualifying, with the Briton having topped the final session of practice earlier on Saturday.
But, helped by a slipstream ‘tow’ from Mexican teammate Sergio Perez, it came alive when it mattered, his first fastest lap in the final phase of qualifying standing as his fastest.
“He fully deserved the pole,” said Hamilton, who will line up second on the front row alongside his rival.
“We just couldn’t compete with that time at the end there,” added the Briton, who trailed Verstappen by half a second after the first flying laps, but cut that deficit to a still sizeable 0.371 seconds at the end.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Qualifying: Verstappen on pole, Hamilton alongside ahead of title showdown
Verstappen and Hamilton head into Sunday’s race, a winner-takes-all showdown, level on points. But the Dutchman is ahead 9-8 on wins.
His Red Bull appeared to have the edge over Mercedes on long-run race simulations in the practice sessions, while the Yas Marina track is also notoriously difficult to overtake at.
But Hamilton, starting on the more durable medium tyres, believes he could be in a stronger position strategically, with Verstappen forced to start on the fragile soft tyres after locking up and flat-spotting his set of mediums.
Changes made to the circuit to boost overtaking and give it a more flowing feel could also help him hunt down the Red Bull.
“We’re in a good position, I’d like to think, with our tyres for tomorrow,” said the 36-year-old. “And I hope that we can have a good race.”
He could not resist a dig at Verstappen, whose uncompromising defence of the lead was penalised at the last race in Saudi Arabia where the pair also collided for the third time this season.
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“I’m grateful I can see where he is,” Hamilton said chuckling. “And then we can try and navigate from there.”
It’s 1-0 to Red Bull, says Mercedes F1 boss Wolff
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said Verstappen had the early lead in his title battle with Hamilton after taking pole position for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi decider, but the Briton would be fired up to hunt him down.
“You have to take it like it is. It’s 1-0 for them,” said the Austrian.
The pair are on different tyre strategies, however, with Verstappen starting on quicker but faster-wearing softs while Hamilton is on more durable mediums, which means he will be able to go longer before pitting.
“From P2 (second) I would much rather be starting on the medium,” Wolff told Sky Sports television. “We will have a slight disadvantage on the start, I guess, and the first six or seven laps if he drives fast.
“We can go longer, we can go for an aggressive undercut also and try to control track position. Overnight we will be running lots of programmes and algorithms to see where that ends.”
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Wolff said Red Bull’s long runs looked better in Friday practice, but Mercedes had just not got the tyres in the performance window.
Verstappen damaged his set of medium tyres in the second phase of qualifying and switched to softs.
In the final phase, he got an aerodynamic tow from teammate Sergio Perez, but Mercedes did not try the same between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
“Who is going to be faster tomorrow will win the race, irrespective of who starts on which tyre,” said Wolff. “We just need to build on that and regroup and then hopefully come out on top tomorrow.
“I think he (Hamilton) is going to be angry and motivated for tomorrow to just hunt him down. We are on the back foot, and sometimes that’s not bad as a starting point.”