When the first flying lap is a new track record, you know you are in for something special.
Bottas claimed his second consecutive pole and the fourth of his career with a best lap of 1:36.231, two-and-a-half seconds faster than last year’s pole-winning lap and 2.250 better than the previous best qualifying lap seen at Yas Marina Circuit.
‘I just managed to find time here and there,’ said the laconic Finn, ‘and felt really good in the car. I was so gutted in the last race in Brazil, being on pole but missing the win, so I have a clear target for tomorrow.’
Lewis Hamilton, king of the pole in 2017 with 11, made it the third all-Mercedes front row of the season, almost losing his car in a big twitch out of Turn 21 on his final flying lap and finishing 0.273 behind Bottas.
The World Champion-elect was gracious in defeat: ‘What a lap!’ he said of his team-mate’s final effort. ‘He just had an incredible qualifying. For me, overall, it was just little bits here and there.’
Sebastian Vettel, four times on pole in 2017, could not get his Ferrari within half a second of Bottas’s time but refused to be disheartened. ‘It was a good session,’ he insisted, ‘although obviously a bit of a shame to be that far back. It should be a fun race.’
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo performed superbly to split the two Ferraris, slotting into fourth spot on the grid behind Vettel and ahead of Kimi Räikkönen with his youthful team-mate Max Verstappen in sixth.
Row four is shared by Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg and the Force India of Sergio Pérez, whose own team-mate Esteban Ocon will start from ninth alongside the man making his 269th and final Grand Prix start, Felipe Massa of Williams.
Not only did Hamilton break his own Yas Marina Circuit track record as soon as he took to the 5.554-km track with a lap in 1:37.473, but Bottas promptly fired in a 1:37.356 – and that was only in the first 18-minute segment of qualifying.
While those two stayed top, the five drivers eliminated in Q1 were Haas’s Romain Grosjean, continuing a troubled weekend, Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson, and the rookie Toro Rosso pairing of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley.
Canadian Williams driver Lance Stroll needed a mighty final effort to get through to Q2 – and immediately sighed, ‘Oh God, that was everything’ as he made it to 15th spot.
Stroll’s ordeal was over soon enough as he was the slowest of five men eliminated in Q2 along with Renault’s Carlos Sainz, both McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne and the second Haas of Kevin Magnussen.
Flying back from Singapore after being forced to retire for the seventh time in 14 races, Max Verstappen would never have believed what would unfold next in his never-ending season.
Fast forward two months to today in the balmy heat of Abu Dhabi in the season finale and the Dutchman’s name is now pursed on everyone’s lips again as a future world champion after a series of glittering displays since Singapore.
It all began in Malaysia with just his second grand prix triumph followed by second and fourth placings in Japan and the US.
By that time, the title was pretty much done and dusted but the 20-year-old sent out another reminder of his potential by dominating at the front – eventually taking the lead to stand top of the podium in Mexico.
His success, was of course, overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton, who stole the limelight that evening when the Mercedes driver underlined his status of being one of the finest F1 drivers with his fourth world championship.
Coming into Yas Marina Circuit with a fifth place finish in Brazil, the Red Bull driver stands sixth in the drivers’ standings with 158 points. Even if he does win on Sunday, that will not be enough to usurp Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who is winless in 2017, for his joint-best fifth position last season.
As he puts it, the last nine months have been very eventful.
“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster season,” he told Sport360° at a TAG Heuer sponsored event at House of Debonair on Friday night in the UAE capital.
“Lately for sure, we had some great results especially in the last five races and still very happy to get those two victories (Mexico and Malaysia) this season. At the beginning of the season, it was a little bit more difficult with the reliability of the car and we managed to turn it around and I’m happy with that.”
— Denzil M Pinto (@denz_360) November 24, 2017
At just 20, Verstappen is mature beyond his years and his performances in the second half of the season shows he possesses such bravery and hunger which is frightening.
Another solid show in Abu Dhabi will only add more fuel to a discussion that 2018 could be one of the sport’s most competitive yet.
Sebastian Vettel’s continued resurgence with Ferrari and a fully-charged Verstappen could certainly give Hamilton a run for his money in a three-way race.
The Dutchman says his turnaround in the last five races is not just down to himself but it gives him confidence that he can push the likes of Hamilton and Vettel all the way during the entire 21 races rather than in sporadic periods next year.
“I hope so but we still have to find a little bit of horsepower at the end,” Verstappen added. “I think with the car, we can still improve as well but that is something that other teams will do as well. But we’ll just have to wait and see.
“I have to drive like I’m doing now (on what he needs to do to battle for the F1 title) but there’s always room for improvement of course. But that, only time will tell on where I can improve and with experience.”
Verstappen can draw confidence that Red Bull’s rivals Ferrari have enjoyed their most successful campaign with Vettel’s five victories helping them register their highest points total ever of 495 to date.
After years of frustration due to the car not being competitive, the Scuderia appear to have found the right formula although they still fell short of the title as well as dwarfing Mercedes’ 625 points at the top.
Guaranteed to finish third in the constructors’ standings, the Dutchman issued an early warning to his Red Bull team that he can only be good as his car if he wants to follow into Vettel’s footsteps and bring back the Formula One trophy for the first time since German’s triumph in 2013.
“I hope to be in that fight but F1 is like that,” he added. “You just have to hope that next year will be better and you are in that position. You can see like last year when Ferrari were behind us and now they are actually fighting with Mercedes and it can change very quickly.
“I don’t know (if it will be a matter of time). We just have to wait and see. I will always try to do my best.”
Last month, any hopes of Mercedes or Ferrari snapping up the youngest F1 driver in 2019 were dashed when he committed to a three-year deal until 2020 with an option of an extra year.
Verstappen is fully aware that he is F1’s hottest property but gave his strongest hint that his Red Bull stay could well prolong for a couple of more years even if the Silver Arrows and Ferrari came knocking.
“Will have to wait until that contract ends and then we’ll see how our relationship is,” he said.
“We’ll see what happens in the future but at the moment I’m very happy with the team and I think that it’s very important to have a good bond and feel good in the team. I feel like I’m in the right place so we’ll see in the future.”
Hamilton, who sealed his fourth title with two rounds to spare in Mexico last month, led the way from his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
The British driver posted a best lap of one minute and 37.627 seconds at the Yas Marina circuit to finish a third of a second clear of Bottas with the Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, both half-a-second off the pace, in third and fourth respectively.
Hamilton is bidding to end his championship-winning campaign on a high and is the driver to beat in the heat of the desert having topped the time sheets on Friday and now on Saturday. The Mercedes driver needs one more win to take his tally of victories to an impressive 10 for the 20-race season.
For Vettel – the man who led the championship for 12 rounds before his charge imploded in the second half of the year – he needs to finish only eighth on Sunday to ensure he will end as runner-up to Hamilton, with Bottas 22 points adrift of the German.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth in the order ahead of team-mate Max Verstappen with Fernando Alonso seventh for McLaren. Veteran Brazilian Felipe Massa, who will start his 269th and final grand prix tomorrow ahead of his impending retirement, was 11th.