Winners and losers from the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix qualifying

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen, Red Bull

Max Verstappen waves to the crowd after setting pole position for the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen set pole position in Abu Dhabi Grand Prix qualifying at the Yas Marina circuit.

The three-time World Champion recovered from a nervous final practice session to claim pole, with Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc lining up second and McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri third.

Here are the main winners and losers from the final qualifying session of F1 2023…

Winners

Max Verstappen

It’ll be alright on the night. It always is these days as far as Verstappen and Red Bull are concerned.

There were shades of Singapore throughout practice, Verstappen complaining of understeer (Friday), then oversteer (Saturday), with a bit of jumping never too far away either.

Three suspension setup tweaks were made in the first 45 minutes of FP3 alone, Max squeezing in another after abandoning another attempt – and squeezing in yet another suspension change – before the session finished.

Yet here he is again, celebrating a 13th pole position – yes, dear pedants, Spa does belong to him despite a grid penalty – in 22 rounds in 2023, having looked lost for answers just a few hours earlier.

Toto Wolff often remarked during his team’s years of dominance that Mercedes were at their most lethal when they looked most vulnerable. Now the same is true of the Verstappen/Red Bull partnership.

Utterly formidable.

And, somehow, never in doubt.

Charles Leclerc

Charles Leclerc has had his critics in 2023, yet as the season has entered its latter stages there have been definite signs of him rising again.

Having stewed in his own self-pity early in the season, frustrated that Ferrari had denied him a car to compete for the title, he has looked more like his old, explosive self since a floor upgrade at Suzuka, setting three pole positions in the previous four races.

It is a credit to Leclerc that he came within a tenth-and-a-half of claiming another pole here, having feared joining his team-mate in being eliminated early in the session.

All the more impressive, perhaps, since Ferrari placed a clear emphasis on race pace over qualifying in final practice – basing almost all of their running around the medium tyre.

That homework should pay dividends in a race in which tyre management will be key, Leclerc putting Ferrari in a prime position to take second place in the Constructors’ Championship away from Mercedes.

Oscar Piastri

Piastri had been neutered in the weeks since he claimed his first F1 win in the Qatar sprint race.

With the schedule taking F1 to the Americas and a bunch of circuits he had never seen before, the gap in experience between Piastri and Lando Norris was laid out bare in Austin, Mexico and Brazil.

Abu Dhabi, though, is more familiar territory and Piastri is right back up there cramping his team-mate’s style.

Third on the grid, on a day Norris made yet another mistake with the pressure on, only adds to the evidence that Piastri is the coming man at McLaren.

Yuki Tsunoda

AlphaTauri spoke optimistically of beating Williams to seventh in the Championship in the buildup to Abu Dhabi, but overturning a seven-point deficit seemed a tough ask for a team whose top score this season was six points in Mexico.

But the Red Bull junior team have a couple of joker cards to play here, not only in the shape of an upgraded floor fast-tracked to this race but also in Abu Dhabi specialist Yuki Tsunoda.

Fourth place in the 2021 race remains the best result of Tsunoda’s F1 career – though most eyes were looking elsewhere that day for some reason – with Yuki also comfortably outqualifying his former team-mate Pierre Gasly here last year.

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So sixth on the grid may not be the shock result it first appeared.

Holding on to that position will be a challenge on race day with several drivers on the losers’ list set to recover from poor grid positions, but Tsunoda has put AlphaTauri in a great position to give outgoing team principal Franz Tost a fitting sendoff.

Williams, 14th and 20th on the grid, are in for a sleepless night on Saturday.

Losers

Lando Norris

Criticising Lando Norris is like pulling the wings off a butterfly and brings little enjoyment, but this is now developing into quite a worrying – and potentially career-limiting – habit.

Norris was almost inconsolable after qualifying mistakes in Qatar, a lap blown at the final corner and creating a clear path for team-mate Piastri to claim the win – any win – Lando craved so much.

F1 drivers always vow to learn from their mistakes – and Lando is among the most self-critical of them all – yet it is difficult to right wrongs when certain flaws are so deeply ingrained into a driver’s makeup.

His final Q3 lap was close to perfect until suddenly it wasn’t, Norris making an inconceivable error at the one corner of the lap where mistakes are almost unthinkable.

Blew it. Again. And plunged into yet another crisis of confidence of his own making.

It’s now clearer than ever that his temperament risks holding him back.

Lewis Hamilton

“It takes some good going for me not to get into Q3,” Lewis Hamilton sniffed after falling in Q2, but it is becoming quite a regular occurrence these days.

Seven days after qualifying 11th in Las Vegas he was back there again, simply unable to drive around the limitations of the W14 car as effectively as George Russell.

The really worrying thing? This time it wasn’t much of a surprise, Hamilton admitting after Friday practice that it would be an achievement to make Q3.

Upon their return to the scene of the crime, perhaps this session underlined the different directions the careers of Verstappen and Hamilton have headed in since that night in 2021.

While Verstappen and Red Bull are able to successfully navigate their way out of sticky situations, Hamilton and Mercedes just descend ever deeper into the hole.

Carlos Sainz

If Leclerc is looking more like his old self, regrettably Carlos Sainz is looking more like his – at least this weekend.

There was nothing he could do about the loose manhole cover in Vegas and, in the circumstances, the fact that he ran Leclerc so hard in qualifying there – as if issuing a reminder of what he could have achieved with a clean run – was outstanding.

Yet he has been scrappy so far this weekend, his crash in FP2 not merely a function of a bump on the track and the turbulent air from the car ahead – as he insinuated afterwards – but also perhaps of his abrupt, spiky technique, making him more vulnerable than most to being caught out.

The signs were there in final practice too, Sainz last even after Ferrari switched to qualifying sims late on as Leclerc broke into the top five.

As on Friday Carlos quickly pointed to other factors – traffic, that’ll do it – for his Q1 exit, but would be well advised to look a little closer to home.

His best season to date is ending in a disappointing fashion.

Sergio Perez

We see you down there, Sergio, in ninth, behind an AlphaTauri and a Haas on the grid and a huge seven tenths slower than Verstappen in Q3.

Having wrapped up the runner-up spot in Vegas, Perez may have convinced himself that the pressure is off for Abu Dhabi – but the pressure is never truly off in a car as good as the RB19.

He initially improved to a respectable-ish fifth on his final Q3 lap, reducing the gap to Verstappen to 0.423s, but a lap deletion for track limits at Turn 1 – of all places – dropped him back four spots.

The only two races where Perez qualified Verstappen this season? Jeddah, where Max suffered a driveshaft failure in Q2, and Miami, where he was caught out by a red flag.

Without a couple of huge slices of luck, Perez would have been staring at a total white – sorry, orangewash – in 2023.

Logan Sargeant

Oh, Sarge.

Just as he was starting to finally look at home in F1 he goes and does something like this, breaching track limits so often in Q1 that he ended up without a time on the board.

All the more frustrating for Williams and James Vowles as the pace was there, Sargeant classified eighth and within three tenths of team-mate Alex Albon in FP3.

It was reminiscent of qualifying in Jeddah, the second race of the season, where Sargeant could not recover after having a lap deleted early in the session and exited with a fastest lap that was 30 seconds off the pace.

Which, with the team set to make a final decision on his future in the coming weeks, poses the key question for Vowles to answer: just how much has Sarge developed over the course of his debut season?

And how much more potential, if any, is still to be unlocked?

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