Lewis Hamilton may have struggled to find a rhythm on Friday, but he danced his Mercedes to an impressive tune around the turns of Yas Island in qualifying to take an impressive pole position for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – but there was yet more drama for Ferrari.
The title may already be tucked in his pocket, but Hamilton has refused to take his foot off the gas. Bouncing back from an unusual off-day on Friday, Hamilton turned on the pace in final practice and got the job done in qualifying, ending a pole-less streak dating back to Germany in July in the process.
Pole was Hamilton’s 88th of his career, leaving him 20 clear of Michael Schumacher in the all-time list. It was also his 10th front row start at Yas Marina, tying the record for most front rows at any venue.
Valtteri Bottas improved on his second run to sneak into second, but he’ll be starting from the back of the pack having changed a series of engine components to trigger grid penalties. That’ll promote Brazilian GP winner Max Verstappen, who had never previously outqualified a team mate in Abu Dhabi, to the front row after the Dutchman ended up third.
Ferrari have never had a front row in Abu Dhabi and that disappointing run continued, as there was confusion on Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc’s final runs. Vettel was released first, with Leclerc just behind. But a slowish lap from Vettel, who said he had cold tyres and had the pack backing up ahead of him, meant he only just made it across the line before the chequered flag. His team mate wasn’t so lucky…
Vettel then had a poor first sector, which meant he was unable to improve, meaning he ended up fifth, a place behind Leclerc, with the second Red Bull of Alexander Albon sixth.
Lando Norris found a bunch of time on his second run to leapfrog McLaren team mate Carlos Sainz and end up seventh, meaning he wins the team mate head-to-head 11-10. Daniel Ricciardo was eighth and Sainz ninth, the trio separated by just 0.023s. Nico Hulkenberg, competing in potentially his last ever F1 Grand Prix, closed his season out with 10th.
The session was barely a few minutes old when Vettel caused a scene at the final corner, losing the car as he got on the power and spinning onto the start-finish straight. The Ferrari driver got going again, and clocked a lap on flat-spotted tyres that was good enough to see him through to the next segment.
Meanwhile, Hamilton looked to have turned a corner with his speed in FP3 and stepped it up again when qualifying got under way, topping the times in Q1, comfortably clear of team mate Bottas as Mercedes opted to send their cars out with enough fuel for a series of flying laps, such was their confidence.
At the other end of the pack, Romain Grosjean had a close shave with Daniil Kvyat when the Toro Rosso was released in front of him in the pits ahead of their final runs. The Frenchman, who had looked best of the rest for much of the weekend, failed to get the job done and made a shock exit in Q1.
He was joined in taking an early bath by the Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen, the duo looking painfully slow, and the Williams pair of George Russell and Robert Kubica.
Knocked out: Grosjean, Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Russell, Kubica
Q2 coincided with sunset, the floodlights that line the track on Yas Island flicking up to full power, with the drivers swapping to a more transparent visor to help improve visibility.
Mercedes and Red Bull plus Ferrari’s Leclerc set their quickest times on the medium tyre, while Ferrari’s Vettel did his on the soft (and still only managed fourth), meaning they will start Sunday’s race on the more durable rubber.
Nico Hulkenberg, potentially racing in his last ever F1 race having failed to get a seat next year, popped in a tyre in the closing stages to scrape into the top 10, a fraction behind Renault team mate Daniel Ricciardo. That is the first time both Renaults have made Q3 since Russia, five races ago.
Sergio Perez just missed out in 11th, just ahead of Pierre Gasly – with Lance Stroll – who got out of Q1 for only the seventh time this year – also getting the boot in the second segment.
Daniil Kvyat finished the season with only one Q3 appearance in the final 15 races while Kevin Magnussen maintained his record of having never reached Q3 in five visits to Abu Dhabi. Elsewhere, McLaren’s Carlos Sainz the best of the midfield drivers with the sixth quickest time.
Knocked out: Perez, Gasly, Stroll, Kvyat, Magnussen
Hamilton stamped his authority early in the final segment of qualifying, the six-time world champion comfortably slotting into top spot, ahead of Verstappen and Bottas.
They then bolted on a fresh set of tyres for one last stab, with Hamilton going even faster to secure a first pole position since Germany, 10 races ago.
Bottas held onto second, as Verstappen made a mistake in the final corner, to give Mercedes their sixth consecutive one-two in Q3 – but they will not lock-out the front row courtesy of Bottas’ grid penalty.
Verstappen moves onto the front row, having never previously started higher than six on the grid in Abu Dhabi, while his team mate Albon starts on row three for the fifth consecutive race.
Ferrari failed to get their act together in the final moments of qualifying, Leclerc failing to get one last lap after being timed out and while Vettel did get through, his cold tyres prevented him improving.
Lights go out at 17:10 local time tomorrow, which is 13:10 GMT, with the season-ending 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix set to be fought over 55 laps. Can Hamilton hold off Verstappen and secure a victory to cap off a stunning season that saw him secure his sixth world title?