Max Verstappen pipped his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez to claim his seventh pole position of the season in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
It is also a third consecutive Yas Marina pole for the World Champion, who has said he will do what he can to help Perez claim second place in the Drivers’ standings at the expense of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
The Dutchman also withstood a late challenge from Lewis Hamilton, who set a ‘purple’ fastest first sector on his final run but could only manage fifth behind Ferrari duo Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
Hamilton had ended FP3, in which Perez had set the fastest time ahead of Verstappen, having to make a trip to see the stewards for an alleged failure to slow down for a red flag, but was cleared less than 30 minutes before qualifying was due to start.
Temperatures had cooled in the two and a half hours since the end of practice as the sun went down on Abu Dhabi and despite a delay to the preceding F2 race for a crash involving Jehan Daruvala, qualifying got under way on time.
Nicholas Latifi was first onto the track for what is almost certain to be his last F1 qualifying session after being dropped by Williams for 2023, with the expected pole position contenders biding their time before putting in a ‘hot’ lap.
When they did, it was Verstappen who set the early standard ahead of his team-mate Perez, the World Champion asking for his headrest to be checked as he thought it might be broken. The Ferrari pair were ahead of both Mercedes cars on the opening runs.
As the clock ticked into the closing stages of Q1, Sebastian Vettel needed to improve to avoid an immediate exit from his last qualifying session before retirement, Valtteri Bottas another eye-catching name in the bottom five.
Vettel was out nice and early for his decisive effort, improving superbly to fifth at that point despite meeting traffic near the end of the lap, but there was no good news for Bottas who exited the session – saying he could not get his tyres up to temperature as the queue backed up on their out-laps.
The Finn was joined by Williams duo Latifi and Alex Albon, Brazil sprint pole-sitter Kevin Magnussen (Haas) and Pierre Gasly, a disappointing end to his last Saturday with AlphaTauri.
Hamilton began Q2 complaining about his brake (singular) – “still a problem” – as he and Russell set the first laps of the 15-minute mini-session. But again, it was Red Bull at the top, Perez well clear of Verstappen – “weird…zero rear grip” – this time by over four tenths, Lando Norris then splitting the Ferraris and ahead of both Mercedes cars.
Russell and Hamilton again ran out of sync to their rivals with their second attempts, the former World Champion sounding astonished at still being three tenths down to Perez, but at least they were safe – unlike Daniel Ricciardo, who had looked a strong Q3 candidate up to that stage.
The Australian made it though, as did Norris thanks to his last run, but that was bad news for McLaren’s direct rivals Alpine in the battle for Constructors’ P4 as Fernando Alonso dropped out – along with Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri), Mick Schumacher in his final qualifying for Haas, Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) and Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo).
Vettel was through to Q3 but angry at repeatedly being held up, ironically by Red Bull, the team who provided his four World Championship-winning cars. He was not a realistic pole contender, but there were still several others eyeing that position.
Perez was looking favourite to bag it provisionally but made a mistake in the final corner and dropped behind Sainz, letting in Verstappen to dip into the 1:23s and move into P1 with Sainz in P2.
Leclerc moved up to second on the final runs ahead of his team-mate, Verstappen went even quicker than his provisional pole lap and Perez tucked in behind him to make it an all-Red Bull front row, with the Ferraris and Mercedes behind in a ‘Noah’s Ark’ effect on the first three rows.
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:23.824
2 Sergio Perez Red Bull +0.228
3 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +0.268
4 Carlos Sainz Ferrari +0.418
5 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +0.684
6 George Russell Mercedes +0.687
7 Lando Norris McLaren +0.945
8 Esteban Ocon Alpine +1.006
9 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin +1.137
10 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren +1.221
11 Fernando Alonso Alpine +0.677 (Q2)
12 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri +0.800
13 Mick Schumacher Haas +0.806
14 Lance Stroll Aston Martin +0.940
15 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo +0.989
16 Kevin Magnussen Haas +1.080 (Q1)
17 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri +1.105
18 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo +1.138
19 Alex Albon Williams +1.274
20 Nicholas Latifi Williams +1.300