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Verstappen shrugs off problems to claim 12th pole of season

Max Verstappen made light of earlier set-up problems on Saturday by blitzing to pole position for Red Bull in an eventful qualifying session for this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. 

The three-time world champion clocked a best lap in one minute and 23.445 seconds to outpace nearest rival Charles Leclerc of Ferrari by a tenth of a second ahead of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri. 

It secured Verstappen’s 12th pole of the season, his fourth in succession in Abu Dhabi and the 33rd of his career, drawing him level with 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell in the record books. 

George Russell was fourth for Mercedes ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri after Carlos Sainz failed to make it out of Q1 in the second Ferrari and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was unable to progress from Q2 in his Mercedes. 

“It’s all been very weird,” said a beaming Verstappen. “All weekend it’s been a struggle but we improved a lot and then pushed and I am happy to be on pole. The car felt more connected in qualifying.

“I have no clue how the car will go in the race so let’s see, but I am very proud of our achievements this year.”

Leclerc was also surprised at his success in claiming a front row start. 

“I didn’t expect it and I had to put it all together so I am very happy to have second place,” he said. “In Q1 and Q2, I was worried about going through and then suddenly here I am P2! This car is so peaky.”

Asked about Ferrari’s prospects of overhauling Mercedes’ four-point advantage and taking second place in the constructors’ title race, he added: “Well I hope it goes well. It’s our target to beat Mercedes and that’s all that matters this weekend.”

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso qualified seventh for Aston Martin ahead of Haas’s Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull and Pierre Gasly of Alpine. 

The session began under blazing floodlights following a glorious desert sunset with temperatures of 27 degrees (air) and 33 (track).

After his problems seeking a set-up in FP3, when he was sixth, Verstappen was soon on the pace, clocking 1:24.160 to take control with no radio grumbles, his Red Bull team-mate Perez slotting into second late in Q1.

The luckless Sainz was a surprise flop, the Ferrari driver eliminated after finishing 15th and going out along with Haas’s Kevin Magnussen, Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, and Logan Sargeant of Williams, whose two best laps were deleted for exceeding track limits. 

The Q2 section began with Alex Albon, still feeling ill, first out followed by Hamilton, but it was Verstappen who dazzled again, clocking the first sub-1:24 lap in 1:23.740 to stamp his authority on proceedings with a fresh set of softs.  

Alas for Hamilton, a five-time pole-sitter at the Yas Marina Circuit, he could not find the pace required and he was knocked out in 11th along with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, Lance Stroll of Aston Martin, Albon and Alpha Tauri’s Daniel Ricciardo. 

“There’s something not right with this car,” said Hamilton, out-qualified by his team-mate Russell who was fourth behind Verstappen, Norris and Leclerc. The pair thus ended the year 11-11 in their qualifying head-to-head duel. 

The outcome of such a close contest in Q2 was that eight different teams were through to the top ten shootout, only Red Bull and McLaren succeeding with both drivers.

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