As if presenting the year in microcosm, qualifying for the Formula One season finale in Abu Dhabi reflected almost perfectly a pecking order that is as celebratory for some as it is painful for others. Max Verstappen and Red Bull were once more on top, claiming pole position, while Lewis Hamilton and George Russell languished in all too familiar fifth and sixth places for Mercedes.
For Hamilton it was another trying afternoon in a season he admitted he could not wait to put behind him. “I’m looking forward to the end of Tuesday [after the final tyre test] which is the last time I have to drive this,” he said. “I don’t ever plan to drive this one again. This won’t be one of the cars I request to have as part of my contract.”
Verstappen’s pole lap was another demonstration of the precision execution he has repeatedly produced this year combined with the overwhelming pace of the Red Bull. He was a full two-tenths up on teammate Sergio Pérez, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz occupying third and fourth place, unable to trouble the Red Bulls.
Verstappen and Red Bull already have both drivers’ and constructors’ titles sewn up and the team now look to Pérez to secure their first one-two finish in the championship. Pérez is equal on points with Leclerc and finishing in front of the Monegasque driver will seal runners-up spot.
After their altercation at the last round in Brazil over team orders to favour Pérez which Verstappen refused to obey, the two drivers appeared to be singing from the same sheet this time, with a one-two they both hope to maintain over Ferrari. “I am very happy both cars are on the front row,” said Verstappen. “We want to win the race but we also want Sergio to finish second in the championship.”
For Hamilton, controversially denied an eighth title in Abu Dhabi last year, the Mercedes performance was another painful reminder of a difficult season at a circuit already burdened with bad memories.
He and Russell were six-tenths back from Verstappen, a country mile that was illustrative of just how wildly their car varies in form, after they took a one-two at the last round in Brazil. The car has been mercurial all season, a handful to drive and impossible to nail down. As a consequence Hamilton has now lost his record of having taken pole at least once in every season since his debut in 2007 and on Sunday he is likely to see his run of a grand prix win every year come to an end too.
The race will draw a curtain on what has been a season the seven-time champion clearly wants to forget. “We thought this would be a difficult race for us but we weren’t expecting to be so far behind them,” he said. “I gave it everything but I’m looking forward to the end of tomorrow.”
Sebastian Vettel bowed out from his final F1 qualifying session with a vintage performance, a timely reminder of the talent that secured him four world championships.
In his final race meeting before he retires, Vettel absolutely wrung the neck of his underperforming Aston Martin to take ninth. After 16 years and 298 starts, Vettel will call time on his F1 career at the circuit where he clinched his first title in 2010 and he can enter the race satisfied he could not have done more in qualifying. The 35-year-old made his debut for Toro Rosso in 2007 and has won 53 races, the last for Ferrari at Singapore in 2019.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo finished in 10th place. Before qualifying it was confirmed he will join Red Bull as reserve driver next season, a return to the team with whom he raced between 2014 and 2018. Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren, where he will be replaced by the Australian Oscar Piastri.
Lando Norris was seventh for McLaren and Esteban Ocon eighth for Alpine, three ahead of his teammate Fernando Alonso. Yuki Tsunoda was 12th for AlphaTauri, one ahead of Mick Schumacher in his last meeting for Haas. Lance Stroll was 14th for Aston Martin and Zhou Guanyu 15th for Alfa Romeo.
Kevin Magnussen was 16th for Haas, Pierre Gasly 17th for AlphaTauri and Valtteri Bottas 18th for Alfa Romeo. Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi were 19th and 20th for Williams.