Max vs Lewis battle is set: 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix qualifying report


Max Verstappen takes pole for the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, starting directly ahead of Lewis Hamilton in third. It's a promising recipe for the final race of the F1 season, says Tony Dodgins

Max Verstappen celebrates pole at the 2020 Abu Dhabi GP

Getty Images via Red Bull

Lewis Hamilton was back and after an enticing insight into F1 at the sharp end, poor George Russell, last weekend’s story, was back down to earth with a bump. Back among the Q1 eliminees. Formula 1 is fast-moving on and off the track and the new story was Max Verstappen, Red Bull and the first non-Mercedes pole of 2020.

Hamilton had not exactly suffered mild Covid symptoms but was recovered and quickly resumed normal service. Delayed by brake issues in FP1, he was second to Valtteri Bottas in Friday’s second session – the only one that reflects likely race conditions at Yas Marina — and topped Q1 and Q2. In between, on Saturday morning, Verstappen served notice of intent by topping the FP3 timesheet but Red Bull weren’t sure they’d be in the pole fight.

But in it they were. Pirelli brought the softest three tyres in its range, the C3/4/5s, and there was less than half a second between the softest two compounds. The problem with the soft was keeping the rears alive for the final sector of the lap. But after a great middle sector Verstappen did just that, resisting the urge to take too much speed into the final corner and lose out on exit.

Christian Horner was delighted: “You just know you can bank on Max,” he beamed. “It’s great reward for the whole team: we’ve set nine of the 10 fastest pit stops this year and Honda has shown great reliability too. Alex will be quick at the start of the race as well on the soft tyre, although it hasn’t quite got the distance, so hopefully we’ll be in the fight.”

Horner is right. The scene looks well set for an entertaining finale. Bottas qualified less than three-hundredths behind Verstappen, himself just 0.05sec in front of Hamilton – all three of them on the medium compound tyre in Q2.

Valtteri Bottas in qualifying for the 2020 Abu Dhabi GP

Encouragement from Wolff helped Bottas to second

Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

“Everything you’ve got, Valtteri…” Toto Wolff said over the radio as the Finn went for his final Q3 run. It’s not as if Bottas wasn’t about to give it that, but it was important to get the message of moral support across after the pasting Valtteri took post-Sakhir.

“I haven’t been reading anything,” Bottas said, “That’s sometimes how you have to deal with this business…”

It’s just as well. Russell’s Mercedes debut had been superb but judging by some of the media nonsense of the past seven days – not all of it on social media – you’d have thought Valtteri had finished a couple of laps down on a level playing field. In reality, all he’d done wrong was fail to get it off the line. Everything else you can explain away, especially when you understand that Russell, like Hamilton, is no ordinary driver.

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On old hard compound tyres, Valtteri was bound to get beaten up by George on fresh mediums. He’d taken pole, then dropped back to a tyre-saving distance, as you do, when he didn’t win the start. He’d been coming back at Russell when the safety car appeared. So, what, exactly, deserved the pillorying?

If Verstappen’s lap was hot, just as scorching if not more was the one from Lando Norris that put a McLaren fourth on the grid – his best performance since the season-opener in Austria.

Coming into Abu Dhabi, Norris and team-mate Carlos Sainz were 8-8 in their individual qualifying head-to-head over the season. Lando’s lap meant that he edged that battle. For average qualifying pace over the year, disregarding Turkey, where the tyre warm-up of the intermediates skewed the picture, and Bahrain, where Norris couldn’t record a Q2 time – Sainz comes out on top by 0.03sec. Just like 2019, unbelievably tight!

Sainz was 0.32sec and two places further back as Albon split the team-mates with his Red Bull, but the good news for McLaren is that Carlos, in keeping with the top three and Leclerc’s Ferrari, managed to clear Q2 on the medium compound tyre. He will thus be able to run a longer opening stint and a guaranteed one-stopper.

Lando Norris during qualifying for the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Norris put his McLaren fourth to win the season qualifying battle with Sainz

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Starting just 10 points behind Racing Point in that frantic battle for third in the constructors’ championship, McLaren has a real opportunity. Lance Stroll starts eighth for Racing Point on the soft compound Pirelli and poor Sergio Perez will be at the back after incurring engine penalties. Last weekend he became the first driver in F1 history to win a Grand Prix from last position on lap one. Otmar Szafnauer asking him for a repeat might be a bit much, but strong points at least, are needed.

Albon’s Q3 time was within 0.33sec of Verstappen’s pole, the closest he has been to Max since Monza, nine races ago. But will it be enough for him to retain his seat?

“We’re in the fortunate position where talented drivers like Perez and Hulkenberg don’t have other options, so that gives us the luxury of being able to take time to ensure that we make the right decision and give Alex every opportunity,” Horner explains. “What we’re most conscious of moving forward is, in order to take on Mercedes, we can’t do it one-legged: from a strategic point of view and from a development point of view. That’s what we have to analyse with the data we have, which will be complete this weekend.”

Alex Albon's Red Bull is a blur as it passes the pitwal at the 2020 Abu Dhabi GP

Albon starts on the soft tyre and could make early progress from fifth

Getty Images via Red Bull

Bearing that in mind, it’s important for Albon to join in the fight tomorrow although, to do so, he may be compromised by that inability to make it through Q2 on the yellow-walled tyre.

The average qualifying gap between Verstappen and Albon over the season has been just over half a second. Between team-mates, only the margin between Russell and Latifi (just over 0.6sec) is bigger. But the rest aren’t up against Verstappen. Just to keep things in some sort of perspective, the rivalry between Senna and Prost was painted in Ali/Frazier or Borg/McEnroe terms, but the average qualifying gap between them at McLaren in 1989, was 0.88sec…

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Although it has all come a bit late for Daniil Kvyat, the Russian outqualified Pierre Gasly for the second successive race and will line up a fine seventh, between Sainz and Stroll. He reckoned it was the best lap of Yas Marina he’d ever driven as he beat 10th-placed Gasly by almost three-tenths.

Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari qualified ninth, team-mate Sebastian Vettel fully 0.7sec adrift in Q2 as he failed to make the top 10 shoot-out for the 13th successive race. Leclerc will start just ahead of Vettel as a result of the three-place gird penalty for colliding with Perez at the start of last weekend’s race.

Renault heads into the race 12 points adrift of McLaren for fourth in the championship and faces an uphill struggle. Sakhir podium finisher Esteban Ocon outqualified team-mate Daniel Ricciardo for the first time since a wet Styrian session at round two back in July, but after the two Renaults finished FP3 third and fourth, 11th and 12th on tomorrow’s grid is disappointing.

Esteban Ocon during qualifying for the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Ocon was the faster of the Renaults but couldn’t make it out of Q2

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

The morning session is not representative of the track and hence tyre temperatures later in the day, of course. “I lost rear grip and didn’t really have the confidence to fully attack,” Ocon admitted, “but on the plus side, we have freedom of tyre choice tomorrow.”

It will be interesting to see if they start on the same or differing strategies. Because we will be pardoning Cyril Abiteboul’s French if his men get in each other’s way…

Toto might have been buoying up Valtteri but, tomorrow, you can’t help but think it’s going to be Max versus Lewis. And what better way to finish a season that has turned out way better than could have been expected? And for which the FIA and FOM should be loudly applauded.

Max Verstappen with Lewis Hamilton after 2020 Abu Dhabi GP qualifying


2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix qualifying results

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 35.246sec
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1min 35.271sec
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 35.332sec
4 Lando Norris McLaren 1min 35.497sec
5 Alex Albon Red Bull 1min 35.571sec
6 Carlos Sainz McLaren 1min 35.815sec
7 Daniil Kvyat AlphaTauri 1min 35.963sec
8 Lance Stroll Racing Point 1min 36.046sec
9 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 36.065sec*
10 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1min 36.242sec
Q2 times
11 Esteban Ocon Renault 1min 36.359sec
12 Daniel Ricciardo Renault 1min 36.406sec
13 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1min 36.631sec
14 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1min 38.248sec
15 Sergio Perez Racing Point No Q2 time set**
Q1 times
16 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 37.555sec
17 Kevin Magnussen Haas 1min 37.863sec**
18 George Russell Williams 1min 38.045sec
19 Pietro Fittipaldi Haas 1min 38.173sec
20 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1min 38.443sec

*Three-place penalty for causing a collision at thew Sakhir GP will drop Leclerc to 12th
**Drivers will start from the back for using extra power unit elements