Max Verstappen will start the World Championship title showdown on pole position in Abu Dhabi, just ahead of Lewis Hamilton – but with the big rivals on different tyre compounds.
The Dutchman, who is level on points with the reigning champion but has the advantage due to one more race win this year, was the beneficiary of a superb tow from Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez on his first flying lap on Q3.
But Verstappen will start the race on soft tyres compared to Hamilton with the mediums, which will make for an intriguing strategy battle between their respective teams – always assuming, of course, the duo do not make contact into the first corner at Yas Marina.
Before qualifying, urgent work was carried out at Red Bull on Verstappen’s rear wing, with team boss Christian Horner telling Sky F1 they were almost at “Monza levels” of downforce to try and eradicate any pace deficit to Mercedes along the straights.
That had been evident in both FP2 and FP3, but the RB16Bs of Verstappen and Perez were ready to go in good time with the duo among the first drivers to take to the track as the sun started to set on this newly re-profiled circuit.
It was first blood to Hamilton, whose first flying lap was four tenths quicker than Verstappen’s, and Valtteri Bottas was only a tenth off his team-mate to give early indications that a Mercedes front row lockout could be on the cards.
As the track continued to rubber in and the temperature dropped heading into the evening, the session was red-flagged with under seven minutes remaining as Mick Schumacher’s Haas skittled over a marker bollard at the final corner which was then hit by Lando Norris’ McLaren. Initial indications were that nobody’s ‘hot’ lap had been affected and the session quickly resumed when the loose bollard had been retrieved.
Sebastian Vettel was unhappy that Esteban Ocon had compromised one of his flying laps and the four-time former World Champion found himself in the drop zone entering the closing stages, but the German squeezed through at the expense of Williams duo Nicholas Latifi and George Russell.
The Briton expressed unhappiness over the team radio at the way his session had been planned, being outqualified by his team-mate in his last race before joining Mercedes for next year.
Kimi Raikkonen’s F1 qualifying career also ended in Q1, with Haas duo Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin predictably exiting also, but the Finn’s Alfa Romeo colleague Antonio Giovinazzi made it through in his swansong for the team.
❌ Out in Q1:
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) December 11, 2021
In Q2, all four Mercedes and Red Bull cars emerged from their neighbouring garages on medium-compound tyres and on their respective first runs, Hamilton was faster in all three sectors than Verstappen – but the Red Bull ended up only four thousandths of a second down, with Bottas also right on the pace.
However, they were all then eclipsed by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who topped the timesheet as a more worrying issue arose for Verstappen – he locked up into Turn 1 and flat-spotted his tyres, which might have been intended as those on which he would start the grand prix.
The 24-year-old returned to the circuit on soft tyres as the out-laps resembled a race, with drivers jockeying for position, the upshot being that Verstappen and Perez, also on the red-marked rubber, went first and second. That meant both Red Bull cars will start on the softs – sending them in a different direction strategy-wise to Mercedes.
Vettel, who described the queuing to start ‘hot’ laps as “carnage” over the team radio, was slowest in Q2, joined in failing to reach the top-10 shootout by, in ascending order, Giovinazzi, Lance Stroll, Pierre Gasly – who had reported a braking issue – and Fernando Alonso.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) December 11, 2021
Horner revealed to Sky Sports it had been “50-50” about Red Bull wanting to start the race on soft tyres and that the lock-up had “forced their hand”, giving them “strategic opportunities” in what is traditionally a one-stop race.
As Q3 began, Perez was instructed by his race engineer Hugh Bird to stay out of Verstappen’s way up the road and then “let him catch up”, giving the Dutchman the tow down the straight. It worked a treat, with Hamilton unable to get within half a second of Verstappen’s initial flying lap that put him on provisional pole.
Mercedes had to think quickly if they were to replicate the slipstream effect on the second run but they chose not to, Hamilton ahead of Bottas on the track, but the seven-time World Champion could not get within three tenths of Verstappen’s time – putting the title challengers alongside each other on the front row once more, but with different tyres.
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:22.109
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:22.480
3 Lando Norris McLaren 1:22.931
4 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1:22.947
5 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1:22.992
6 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:23.036
7 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1:23.122
8 Yuki Tsunoda AlphAtauri 1:23.220
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1:23.389
10 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1:23.409
11 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1:23.460
12 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1:24.043
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1:24.066
14 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing 1:24.251
15 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1:24.305
16 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1:24.338
17 George Russell Williams 1:24.423
18 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Racing 1:24.779
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 1:24.906
20 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1:25.685