Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took a shock pole position at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Red Bull’s first pole of a season dominated by Mercedes arrived as the Dutchman beat Valtteri Bottas by 0.025 seconds, with Lewis Hamilton third.
Only 0.086secs separated the top three in one of 2020’s tightest sessions.
And Britain’s Lando Norris produced an outstanding lap to take fourth in the McLaren, just 0.251secs off pole and ahead of Red Bull’s Alex Albon.
The second McLaren of Carlos Sainz starts sixth, giving the team extra hope of overhauling their 10-point gap to Racing Point in their fight for third place in the constructors’ championship, on which millions of pounds of prize money hangs.
Saving the best for last
Mercedes had failed to take pole only once all year before Abu Dhabi – and that was in the unusual circumstances of a wet session on a newly laid track in Turkey, where the world champions were struggling to generate tyre temperature.
So this was the first time in 2020 that Mercedes had been beaten for one-lap pace on a dry track, and even Verstappen seemed surprised.
“I said before I went to qualifying that it would be the final send of the season and we did that,” he said. “Very happy with that.
“It was a tricky qualifying at the beginning to get your laps in but luckily everything came together in that final lap.
“The whole year when you are behind getting closer it gets a bit frustrating sometimes. But very pleased with today.”
Bottas explained that tyres were again key – Mercedes were only marginally quicker on the soft tyre in the final part of qualifying than they were using the theoretically slower medium in the second session.
Bottas added: “We saw in practice three that Red Bull and especially Max was quick. The main issue was we didn’t get the soft to work properly.
“All the way to qualifying the medium was feeling better, I don’t think we got 100% out of the tyres. The lap itself I wasn’t fully happy with everything; the balance wasn’t quite perfect. But small margins.”
Hamilton, who missed the last race in Bahrain last weekend with coronavirus, said it had taken him time to get back into the swing of things on this return, even though it had only been two weeks since he last raced.
Hamilton said: “Honestly, really grateful be back here with the team and try to close out the strong season we’ve had.
“It has been a difficult weekend getting back into a rhythm. It was just a couple of weeks off but it felt like I’d lost momentum.
“I struggled with the balance all weekend, but congratulations to Max – a great way to seal the season. But we’re going to give them a good run tomorrow.
“It is always nice to start first and this makes it even more exciting.”
McLaren on the up
McLaren have been overhauled by Racing Point in recent races as the pink cars have come on strong in the final part of the season, but fourth and sixth on the grid gives them hope of a huge boost at the end of the season.
Norris’ performance was remarkable and he beat Sainz by 0.318secs to win their qualifying head-to-head shootout over the season 9-8 before the Spaniard departs to Ferrari.
The extra boost for McLaren is that the highest Racing Point on the grid will be Lance Stroll in eighth, and his team-mate Sergio Perez, who won in Bahrain last weekend, starts on the back of the grid because of engine-related penalties.
Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat, who is likely to leave F1 after Sunday, was seventh, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc could not repeat his qualifying heroics from Sakhir and was only ninth ahead of the the second Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly.
Leclerc, though, has the boost of the fact that he – like the Mercedes drivers and Verstappen – will start the race on the medium tyre, having been impressively quick and fourth fastest on them in the second part of qualifying.
Like Mercedes, he also struggled on the soft – and in fact the Ferrari was faster on the medium in Q2.
Leclerc crushed team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who was 0.7secs off the 23-year-old’s pace in Q2 despite the German using soft tyres.