ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — World champion Lewis Hamilton took pole position for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday.
It was the six-time Formula One champion’s record-extending 88th pole of his career and ended a surprising run of 10 races without pole since the German GP in late July.
“That's what I've been looking for,” said Hamilton, who has won 10 races this season. “Yesterday was quite wobbly (in practice) so I had to come back focused."
It also moved the British driver level on a season-leading five poles with Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who finished .194 seconds behind him. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third quickest at .360 seconds behind Hamilton.
Ferrari struggled for pace on the Yas Marina circuit, with Charles Leclerc fourth ahead of Sebastian Vettel. They were both around a half-second slower than Hamilton, who sealed his sixth title two races ago at the United States GP.
Verstappen starts on the front row, however, and both Ferraris move up one place in Sunday’s race because Bottas is demoted to the back of the grid for making an extra engine-part change.
"As a team it's been a really strong day, and we had a good pace,” Bottas said. “In any case, I'm going to start last, so we'll take that fighting spirit tomorrow."
Two weeks after the Ferraris crashed into each other at the Brazilian GP, this was another disappointment for the team.
Vettel span on the track early into the first part of qualifying — known as Q1 — and drifted backward on the track for a few seconds with Hamilton looming behind him. Fortunately, Hamilton was far enough behind Vettel to avoid any impact. In Friday’s first practice session, Vettel had crashed into the barriers after misjudging his entry into Turn 19 and needed a gearbox change.
Former F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen was among the five drivers eliminated from Q1, which was topped by Hamilton.
French driver Pierre Gasly, who finished second in Brazil two weeks ago for his first career podium, let out a loud expletive on team radio after being eliminated from Q2 — which Leclerc led from Hamilton.
Earlier, Verstappen was fastest in the third and final practice — just .074 seconds ahead of Hamilton and .089 clear of Bottas.
Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat was fined 5,000 euros ($5,500) for an unsafe release from the pit-lane garage, which impeded the Haas car of Romain Grosjean.
Sunday’s race in the desert starts at 5:10 p.m. local time (1310 GMT) and finishes under floodlights, when temperatures are considerably cooler than in the afternoon.
Mercedes has had an iron grip on this race, winning every year since 2014 — with Hamilton finishing first three times to add to his victory when driving for former team McLaren in 2011.
Red Bull has not won here since Vettel’s victory in 2013, but with the Honda engine improving throughout this season Verstappen is optimistic he can sign off the season with a fourth win to match Bottas.
"I think today was the best we could do, we all know Mercedes is quite dominant here,” Verstappen said. “I think still a lot of chances for tomorrow, and we'll see what happens."