Pole-sitter Max Verstappen admitted it had not been the original plan to start the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix title showdown on soft tyres.
Verstappen will be on the front row alongside his World Championship rival Lewis Hamilton. If he is still ahead of the Briton at the chequered flag, the Dutchman will capture the Drivers’ crown for the first time.
The two protagonists go into a mouth-watering, deciding 22rd and final race of a captivating season level on points, but with Verstappen holding the advantage of nine race wins to Hamilton’s eight.
Red Bull nailed qualifying at Yas Marina despite some nervy moments, firstly when the rear wings of their cars were still being urgently worked on minutes before Q1 began.
Then came a strategy change during Q2 when Verstappen flat-spotted his medium-compound tyres with a lock-up into Turn 1, forcing a switch to the softs on which he then clocked his fastest time of that session – and will therefore line up for the grand prix on that very set.
But despite fears of even a potential Mercedes front-row lockout, Verstappen got his first flying lap of Q3 absolutely spot-on, aided by a tow from his team-mate Sergio Perez, to secure pole position by a surprisingly comfortable 0.371sec from Hamilton.
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) December 11, 2021
Christian Horner had said during the Sky F1 coverage that it had been a “50-50” call to start on the soft tyres as it offered “strategic opportunities”, but in the post-qualifying press conference Verstappen suggested it had not been such a balanced view after all.
Asked if it had been the plan to start on the softs, the 24-year-old said: “Naturally it wasn’t because I was trying to start on the mediums, but I flat-spotted that one.
“But I felt good yesterday on the long run also on the softs, so it was not really a difficult decision to make to then say ‘okay, let’s just focus on the softs’.”
Although the Perez tow had looked to be decisive in Verstappen being so much quicker than Hamilton, both the driver and his team boss concurred it did not account for all of the delta – for it was simply a brilliant lap from the Dutchman anyway.
“For sure, on that first run it was very nice,” said Verstappen of the tow effect. “Then on my second run I had a very good exit out of Turn 7, so I actually didn’t even lose time on that straight, just on my own following the cars.
“But for sure, for that first run it was a nice tow.”