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Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Max Verstappen on pole with Lewis Hamilton second

By Andrew Benson | BBC News |

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen struck the first blow in his title decider against Lewis Hamilton by taking a stunning pole position in Abu Dhabi.

Verstappen was 0.371 seconds faster than the Mercedes driver after a brilliant first qualifying lap at Yas Marina.

Verstappen and Hamilton head into the race tied on points. The race is effectively winner-takes-all, although if neither finish Verstappen will be champion because he has one more win.

Hamilton was more than 0.5secs adrift after their first laps in final qualifying and although he improved on his final run he could not get close to Verstappen’s time.

And there is a strategy twist because Verstappen and Hamilton will start the race on different tyres, the Dutchman on the soft and the Briton on the medium.

Verstappen was forced to switch to the soft tyres in the second session, which defines the starting tyre, after locking his brakes and damaging one of his medium tyres.

McLaren’s Lando Norris took an excellent third, ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.

The second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was only sixth, also behind the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.

What a performance from Verstappen

Verstappen delivered the pole lap he almost managed in Saudi Arabia last weekend.

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In Jeddah, he was on for one of the laps of the season only to crash at the final corner. Instead, the blow for Hamilton came at the final race.

Verstappen was aided by a slipstream from Perez, which gained him 0.2secs on the straight, but he was also nearly the same margin quicker than Hamilton in the final sector, which has most of the corners.

Verstappen said: “It’s an amazing feeling. Incredibly happy with this. It is of course what we wanted but it is never easy, especially with their form recently.”

And he played down the disadvantage of starting on the soft, despite having sworn in the cockpit when he first locked the wheel, knowing that it meant he would be forced to go to the softs.

“I felt good on both tyres,” he said. “In the evening, it is a bit cooler so a bit easier for the soft tyres. We will see tomorrow.”

Hamilton, who received boos from the some of the crowd as he did his television interview after the session, said: “Max did a great lap today so we just couldn’t compete with that time at the end there.

“In the first lap, I dropped a bit of time in Turn Five but the last lap was nice and clean. I just couldn’t go any quicker. I couldn’t beat that time he did today. He fully deserved that pole.

“But it was looking really strong through practice.”

Norris the interloper

Red Bull and Mercedes will have wanted Perez and Bottas to join their team-mates in the top four, but neither was able to manage it because of an excellent performance from Norris.

The Briton, one of the stars of the season, snuck ahead of Perez by just 0.016secs to put his McLaren at the head of the second row.

Norris: “We were confident all weekend we could get to qualifying and do a good performance but probably not to be this high on the grid.”

And he said he was not sure how to handle the first lap, whether to get in the middle of the title fight or not, if he had the opportunity.

Bottas’ performance will have been a disappointment to Mercedes, as it effectively removes their options to use him as a strategic option against Verstappen in the race.

He is in a Ferrari sandwich, with Charles Leclerc in seventh, ahead of the Alpha Tauri of Yuki Tsunoda, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo. BBC News