ABU DHABI – A first Formula One championship for Max Verstappen was in reach after masterful Red Bull strategy helped the Dutchman overcome an early qualifying mistake to beat Lewis Hamilton for the top starting spot in the title-deciding Abu Dhabi GP.
Verstappen flat-spotted his medium tires in Saturday qualifying, which forced Red Bull to blueprint a plan to give its star any sort of edge over his rival. Sergio Perez was tasked to help and went out first in the final qualifying segment — a move that allowed Perez to tow Verstappen down the long straight at Yas Marina Circuit before Perez bailed out and sacrificed his own lap to aid his teammate.
Verstappen clocked his lap at at 1 minute, 22.109-seconds, good enough to hold off Hamilton by .371-seconds. The pole-sitter has won in Abu Dhabi the last six years, including Verstappen's victory last season when he led all 55 laps around the yacht-filled marina.
He refused to presume his pole-winning run guaranteed that Verstappen will dethrone Hamilton's run of four consecutive titles and become F1's first Dutch world champion.
“First of all, I never look at the stats because these things can change at the start or whatever, the first lap,” Verstappen said. “I just need to focus on what we can control as a team.”
Hamilton on Sunday will attempt to win a record eighth championship to break a tie with Michael Schumacher. Hamilton and Verstappen are tied in the standings — the first time since 1974 that contenders were even going into the deciding race.
He liked his chances.
“We're good. Happy that I'm on front row, I can see him,” Hamilton said. “I'm giving it everything.”
Hamilton could ultimately still have the advantage because of Verstappen's mistake.
After Verstappen flat-spotted his medium tires in Q2, Red Bull changed to soft tires and will start Sunday's race on rubber that won't be as durable as the mediums for Hamilton and Mercedes. Red Bull boss Christian Horner said during qualifying "the lockup wasn’t ideal, that kind of forced our hand,” but neither he or his driver were worried.
“I wanted to try to start on the mediums but I flat-spotted,” Verstappen said. “But I felt good on the soft so it's not really a difficult decision to make and then just say ‘OK.’”
Lando Norris for McLaren was a surprise third — beating out both Verstappen and Hamilton's teammates. Perez was fourth for Red Bull, followed by Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and at last Hamilton's outgoing Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in a disappointing sixth.
Norris said he'll have the best seat in the marina come Sunday.
“I'm very excited to see everything unfold, to see what goes on,” Norris said. “It's just a genuine pleasure to be in this position to see everything that's been going on this season between Max and Lewis and to watch the battles and to watch the racing.”
Hamilton was loudly booed by a sold-out crowd packed with Verstappen fans. The British driver shrugged off the reception, noting “there's a lot of (Dutch) orange here,” but acknowledged "you're always surprised by the boos no matter how many times you experience it.
“But I don't care, it doesn't make a difference to me,” he said. “If it was a cheer, if it was a boo, it makes no difference to how I go about my life. If anything, I use that as fuel.”
Hamilton won three consecutive races to slice all 19 points off Verstappen's hold on the championship going into the finale and this title fight has been likened to both James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda in 1976 and Ayrton Senna vs. Alain Prost in 1990.
But Hamilton has been involved in his own tense battles before, including a one-point victory over Felipe Massa for his first championship in 2008 and a five-point loss to teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016. He said this year is “a million times different” from 2016, his last challenge and defeat.
“Much, much different scenario,” said Hamilton, who added he's a better driver and better teammate now. “We're just in a different place in life. We're just in a much better and happier place.”
Verstappen has faced heavy criticism this year for an aggressive driving style that has led to penalties from the stewards, an accusation by Hamilton last week that Verstappen drives over the line, and on-track collisions with his rival. He's said all weekend that he's been treated unfairly on and off track, and Horner wondered if a narrative had not been formed to intentionally pressure Verstappen into mistakes.
Ahead of the finale, Verstappen said he was ready to go.
“For tonight and the coming hours, I think what's most important is good sleep,” Verstappen said. “But also I have friends and family around, so I am not going to do anything different to what I normally have been doing.”
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