Verstappen takes stunning pole position for Abu Dhabi GP

YAS ISLAND, Abu Dhabi (AP) — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen produced a stunning last lap and beat both Mercedes cars to take pole position on Saturday for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

He was .025 seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas and .086 clear of world champion Lewis Hamilton for his first pole of the season and third of his career.

“Mega, mega lap!” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner yelled over the radio when Verstappen crossed the line under floodlights at the Yas Marina circuit.

“It’s a long season for everyone and this was a great final qualifying for the whole team,” Verstappen said. “We are all very happy and it’s great to finally get there after being close many times in 2020.”

Bottas led Verstappen and Hamilton after their first attempts in Q3, the final section of qualifying, and Hamilton then appeared on course for a record-extending 99th career pole as he led the split times on their second and final attempts.

But Verstappen showed why he is touted as a future world champion, while Bottas found some extra speed to score a rare victory over his illustrious teammate.

“Very happy with that. It was a tricky qualifying at the beginning to get laps in. In the last sector there are so many corners you can make a mistake,” Verstappen said. “Luckily everything came together in that final lap.”

Hamilton, who has an F1 record 95 wins, was quick to praise Verstappen, who will aim for his second win of the season on Sunday and 10th overall.

“I gave it my all, congrats to Max. It is a great way for him to seal a year of great performance. We will give them a good run for their money tomorrow,” Hamilton said. “It is always nice to start first but this makes it even more exiting. I am definitely excited to see how I can turn it around.”

Hamilton went well wide in Q1 and went over the curb, while Verstappen complained over the radio that his hand had got stuck inside the cockpit.

Hamilton fared better in Q2, topping the charts. But Sebastian Vettel’s final qualifying session for Ferrari saw him among the five drivers eliminated from it, along with Renault drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon.

“We don’t really know why we struggled, it was a surprise for sure,” said Ricciardo, who has two podium finishes this season. “There is frustration that we could not do any better.”

Racing Point driver Sergio Perez starts what could be his last F1 race from a lowly 15th.

The popular Mexican driver won last Sunday’s dramatic Sakhir GP in Bahrain for the first win of his career and 10th podium finish. But he does not have a seat for next year after being replaced by Vettel, when Racing Point is renamed Aston Martin following a takeover.

Earlier, Verstappen was fastest ahead of teammate Alexander Albon in the third and final practice. He led Albon and Ricciardo, who is competing in his last race for Renault before joining McLaren next year.

Hamilton has won 11 races this year but missed last Sunday’s Sakhir GP in Bahrain as he recovered from the coronavirus. This denied the seven-time F1 champion the opportunity to equal Vettel’s single-season record of 13 wins, set with Red Bull in 2013.

Speaking after qualifying, Hamilton said he is still feeling side effects, including lower energy levels than before.

“I still have some feelings in my lungs, but I would drive if one of my arms were hanging off. That’s what we do as racing drivers. It won’t be the easiest race but I will manage,” he said. “One of the symptoms is it really drains you. I have been trying to sleep as much as I can, but recharging is not as easy as it has been in the past.”

He has also lost weight.

“I am not 100% the same as I was last time I raced,” he said. “But it is in no way going to get in the way of me giving it my all.”

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