Max Verstappen beats Lewis Hamilton to pole position at Abu Dhabi GP

Dutch driver beats British title rival in qualifying at Yas Marina Circuit ahead of Sunday's F1 season finale

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Max Verstappen blitzed to a crucial pole position ahead of Lewis Hamilton for the showdown thriller at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

And it instantly makes him the hot favourite to become world champion in a winner-takes-all finale on Yas Island.

The Dutchman stunned the watching millions after the form of the previous two days, and last two Grands Prix, suggested it would be all Mercedes.

But the 24-year-old fired in a remarkable lap on his penultimate run to grab the very front spot and it was never bettered.

And it was, partly at least, down to getting a tow from his teammate Sergio Perez on that first run helping his to go quicker. The size of his advantage — almost four-tenths of a second — was also a surprise, though.

But the title decider will be down to strategy as well as speed. Verstappen flat-spotted his slower medium tyres so was forced on to the faster softs but that means he will not be able to race for as long as Hamilton without pitting.

So it is far from over for the frustrated seven-time champion who was majestic as he took in what must have been a real hammer blow to his dream of becoming the first driver to win eight championships.

He starts on the slower medium tyres which will compromise his start but he will be able to run longer — and that could make all the difference in this sunset race.

But the help that was expected to come from his teammate Valtteri Bottas did not materialise because it transpired he was on an ageing Mercedes power plant that just could not get any higher than sixth.

Starting third on the grid will be McLaren's Lando Norris, ahead of the Red Bull of Sergio Perez in fourth and Ferrari's Carlos Sainz fifth.

“Before the start Checo and I said we were confident we could do it,” said Verstappen. “The tow was great and it worked really well.”

“It’s amazing feeling to be on pole. I’m incredibly happy, its exactly what we wanted. We are good on both types of tyres, and its cooler in evenings so should be easy on both types.

“I felt very relaxed going into qualifying. I know I always do the best I can and the team give me the best car. It worked well again today.”

The final few races have been peppered with controversy, the rivals collided twice at the last race, crashed off twice earlier in the season and last Sunday Hamilton dubbed Verstappen “crazy”.

But here on the eve of their epic title decider here there was a fist bump and some recognition of a shared genius at the wheel of speeding race machines.

“Max did a great lap we just couldn’t compete with that time,” said Hamilton.

But he said he would not be deterred by the fans who booed as he was interviewed. “There’s a lot of orange [Verstappen fans] here,” he joked. “I was surprised by boos, you always are no matter how many times you experience it.

“But it makes no difference to how I go about my life. We are in a good position with our tyres and think we can have a good race.

“On the first lap I dropped time at Turn 5 but the last one was nice and clean, I just couldn’t go quicker. I couldn’t match that lap time. He fully deserved pole.

“I am still on the front row. Of course we have different tyres but I can see where he is and we will navigate from there.”

After 21 races across four continents over the last nine months the two rivals go into the final round level on points so whoever finishes ahead will be champion.

If they crash out together — as they have done twice — Verstappen will be champion after winning nine races to Hamilton's eight this season.

But the build-up has been marked by a warning from stewards that drivers could face a title-wrecking points deduction or even ban for dubious tactics.

Pole has proved crucial in the past, victory going to the driver who has started at the front for the last six years.

But this year the Yas track has several key modifications to help overtaking and improve the spectacle.

Changes which have won plaudits up and down the grid. But the exact impact they have remains to be seen in what is likely to be one of the most hotly anticipated F1 showdowns for many years.

Updated: December 11, 2021, 7:40 PM