After complaining about set-up and balance issues throughout practice, Max Verstappen inevitably sailed to his 12th pole of the year in Abu Dhabi, with a dominant display by the Red Bull driver in qualifying for Sunday's 2023 season finale.
Charles Leclerc dug deep with his final flying lap to take second place, despite his Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz proving unable to survive the first cut at the end of Q1.
Oscar Piastri provisionally claimed P3 alongside George Russell after his team mate Lando Norris had a big slide on his last run. Sergio Perez had his own final lap time deleted for track limits dropping him to ninth, while Lewis Hamilton didn't make it out of Q2 and will start from P11.
After first practice saw ten young substitute drivers in action, and second practice had been heavily curtailed by two red flag incidents, we'd been hoping for a clearer picture of this weekend's order to emerge in FP3 - but it didn't happen. Mercedes' George Russell top of the time sheets ahead of the two McLarens, perhaps. But Williams' Alex Albon fourth quickest ahead of Charles Leclerc? Max Verstappen, Logan Sargeant in eighth? Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton outside the top ten? and Carlos Sainz dead last? As an indicator for qualifying, this was not going according to plan. Or was it?
Q1: Red Bull duo take charge from Tsunoda, but Sainz misses the first cut
Finally it was time to see what was going on for real as the lights at the end of pit lane went green. The cars headed out on track at Yas Marina after a couple of minutes of delay, no one wanting to be first out to sweep up the dust and sand from the racing line. Finally it was Sargeant who was first to blink, Verstappen quickly falling into line astern which then opened the flood gates.
Verstappen's maiden offering was 1:24.160s which was four tenths quicker than Albon, after Sargeant's time was deleted for exceeding track limits. Norris and Leclerc chipped away and moved closer to the Red Bull, but there were disappointing efforts from Sainz, Russell, Piastri and Hamilton - the latter debuting down in P13 ahead of Aston Martin pair Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso.
After their first runs, he cars pitted for new tyres and tweaks. Along with Sargeant, two more drivers - Zhou Guanyu and Nico Hulkenberg - had also had their times deleted, leaving them in the drop zone along with Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen. However the forecast was for track evolution to take another four tenths off the times on their next run, meaning that it was still all to play for right through the order.
Sure enough, the second runs saw Albon move into second while Sargeant found safety in fourth place - and then had his time deleted again, dropping him right back in the danger zone with no time left to pit for a top-up for another try. Perez similarly flirted with the bottom five only to spring up to second with his last-gasp run to make it a Red Bull 1-2. Yuki Tsunoda then had a great run to snatch third from Albon, followed by better laps from Russell and Norris.
The shock elimination proved to be Sainz, who blamed traffic for missing the cut in 16th place. Magnussen, Bottas and Zhou also failed to make the required gains and ended up missing out along with the still-timeless Sargeant. The two Alpines had narrowly scraped through, Esteban Ocon in P14 despite still feeling poorly.
Q2: Verstappen and Norris set the pace - too hot for Hamilton to make it through
Albon was the first car to head out for the second round of qualifying, while a large crowd of slow moving traffic behind him made heavy work of getting through the underpass and out onto track. Verstappen was the only driver on fresh tyres, clearly planning to make quick work of Q2 and conserve his energy and supply of tyres for the final top ten pole shoot-out round.
Albon opened the proceedings with a time of 1:24.965s which was soon pipped by first Hamilton and then Russell, before Verstappen went seven tenths quicker than anyone to wrest control of the timesheets. Perez checked into second place and then it was McLaren's turn to bracket the Red Bull with second and fourth for Norris and Piastri respectively.
All of that meant Hamilton had already been pushed down to tenth place, leaving him on the bubble for making it into Q3. Along with Ricciardo, Gasly, Albon, Ocon and Hulkenberg (after the Haas became the latest victim of track limits), all five were now facing the axe.
With Verstappen confident of the top spot and Norris content with second, they both remained on pit lane leaving Albon first to go again. The Williams provisionally found safety, Hulkenberg also jumping into the top ten on his latest run, which consequently pushed Hamilton into the drop zone. The Mercedes man seemed to have no answer even as his team mate Russell improved to fourth just behind Leclerc's latest.
Piastri managed to scramble into Q3 in tenth place leaving Hamilton and Ocon out of luck. They remained in their cars after the chequered flag in the hope of any late track limits deletions, but none materialised. Also out were Stroll, Albon and Ricciardo. Just seven tenths covered the entire 15-car field.
Q3: Verstappen holds on to top spot as Norris slide hands Leclerc front row spot
This time, everyone wanted to get going when the lights went green for the start of the all-important final round. All ten cars were out on track within seconds of the track opened for business.
Verstappen's opening gambit was 1:23.445s, the fastest lap of the weekend so far. Norris went second, just under four tenths off the Red Bull's pace. Piastri was third followed by Russell and Perez, while Leclerc faltered and fell into ninth place on his first flier.
After a brief hiatus, the cars returned to the track for their final qualifying runs of the 2023 season. Verstappen wanted to be first out of his pit box but had to wait for Leclerc to pass, which allowed Norris, Piastri and Alonso to get out ahead of both of them. Last to go out were Russell and Gasly.
Norris looked fast but went into a big slide in turn 13 which wrecked his chance of challenging for pole or even the front row. Instead it was Piastri who moved ahead of him, although he will face an investigation for impeding Gasly. Meanwhile Leclerc came closest to snatching pole only to fall 0.139s short of Verstappen and have to settle for second instead. Russell then managed to split the two McLaren drivers in fourth, but Perez' final lap was deleted for track limits meaning he tumbled down to P9 as the session concluded.
Verstappen will start on pole tomorrow for the fourth year in a row at Abu Dhabi. The celebrations from the Red Bull team wall took the form of some good humoured banter among the principle players, which had the feeling of some very tired people very much looking forward to the end of term. Christian Horner quipped that Verstappen's pole meant he'd won a five hundred euro bet with Helmut Marko, to which the driver responded: “Huh Helmut lost a bet? What world are we living in?”
This year it's a Red Bull world, and the rest of us are just paying rent.