Verstappen beats Leclerc to Abu Dhabi GP pole as Hamilton and Sainz endure early exits
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed pole position for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, getting the better of Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Oscar Piastri in a session that saw Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton suffer respective Q1 and Q2 eliminations.
After some significant set-up struggles during practice, reigning world champion Verstappen returned to form in qualifying to set the pace from the outset, with his initial lap of 1m 23.445s in the final Q3 phase enough to secure top spot.
Charles Leclerc was Verstappen’s nearest rival, leading Ferrari’s charge in the absence of team mate Sainz, who rued traffic en route to his Q1 exit, while Piastri capitalised on a mistake from team mate Lando Norris to take third.
Like Leclerc, fourth-placed George Russell flew the flag for Mercedes in the pole position shootout after Hamilton failed to make the cut, with Norris back in fifth thanks to a wild moment on his final run, followed by the high-flying AlphaTauri of Yuki Tsunoda.
Fernando Alonso was the fastest Aston Martin driver in seventh position, in front of Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg, the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez (who lost his final lap time due to exceeding track limits) and Alpine’s Pierre Gasly.
FORMULA 1 ETIHAD AIRWAYS ABU DHABI GRAND PRIX 2023
Abu Dhabi 2023
|1 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing
|2 Charles Leclerc LEC Ferrari
|3 Oscar Piastri PIA McLaren
|4 George Russell RUS Mercedes
|5 Lando Norris NOR McLaren
However, there could be a twist in the tale after qualifying, with both Piastri and Gasly under investigation by the stewards over an apparent impeding incident during the closing stages of the session.
Russell’s progression to Q3 came at the expense of Hamilton, who fell at the second qualifying hurdle in 11th, leaving him to question what was wrong with his car, with Ocon and Stroll following in 12th and 13th for Alpine and Aston Martin.
Alex Albon had featured at the sharp end in the early stages of qualifying but Q2 proved to be the limit for himself and Williams as their rivals turned up the heat, meaning he will start 14th, just in front of Daniel Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri.
Q1 had already brought a shock when Sainz – in the wake of his heavy FP2 crash – dropped out in a lowly P16, meaning the Ferrari driver faces another race-day recovery drive after an engine penalty in Las Vegas last time out enforced a midfield start.
Kevin Magnussen wound up 17th in the other Haas machine, Alfa Romeo lost both their cars as Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu could do no more than 18th and 19th, and Williams’ Logan Sargeant brought up the rear after both his Q1 lap times were deleted for exceeding track limits.
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Verstappen fastest as Sainz hits trouble
With limited free practice time behind them, the field of 20 drivers assembled under the Yas Marina lights on Saturday night for the final qualifying session of the season – and the last chance to secure the right to start from pole position.
When Q1 began, and after several minutes of no track activity, Verstappen dusted off his practice struggles to get the timesheets rolling with a 1m 24.160s, slotting ahead of Norris and Leclerc, while Sargeant, Hulkenberg and Zhou all lost laps for exceeding track limits.
Albon was up in fourth position from Tsunoda, Perez, Sainz and Ricciardo, with Russell and Bottas rounding out the top 10, while Gasly and Magnussen joined the trio of drivers caught out by track limits in the drop zone ahead of the decisive final runs.
When those final runs arrived, Sargeant led a sequence of improvements as the clock ticked down to zero but once again saw his lap time deleted, meaning the American rookie was effectively the first driver to be eliminated from proceedings.
Up front, Verstappen failed to improve on used softs – and lost the time due to track limits – but nonetheless remained quickest, with Perez jumping out of the drop zone to second in a rise that dramatically eliminated the other Ferrari of Sainz, who lamented “so much traffic”.
Tsunoda and Albon impressed en route to third and fourth, ahead of Russell, Norris, Stroll, Hulkenberg, Hamilton and Leclerc, with Ricciardo, Piastri (noted for failing to follow the Race Director’s instructions regarding maximum delta time) and Alonso also making it through.
Ocon and Gasly were the final drivers to dip under the Q2 cut in their Alpine machines, with the former still battling his way through illness, leaving Sainz just over a tenth off the time required and sending more frustrated messages over the radio.
Magnussen could not match team mate Hulkenberg’s pace on his way to 17th, followed by Alfa Romeo pair Bottas and Zhou in 18th and 19th respectively, and Sargeant, who finished without a lap time to his name after his track limits transgressions.
Knocked out: Sainz, Magnussen, Bottas, Zhou, Sargeant
Q2 – Hamilton joins Sainz on the sidelines
A few minutes later, the remaining 15 drivers returned to the track – the majority on used tyres, but Verstappen opting for new rubber – to get some more laps on the board and begin their attempts to reach the pole position shootout.
Verstappen picked up where he left off in Q1 by pumping in a 1m 23.740s at the first time of asking to sit a few tenths clear of Norris and Perez, with Piastri going fourth from Russell, Tsunoda, Leclerc, Alonso, Stroll and Hamilton.
That left Ricciardo, Gasly, Albon, Ocon and Hulkenberg (who had another lap time deleted) in the drop zone after the initial runs, which were set to bring significant improvements thanks to the usual track improvement and drivers bolting on new tyres.
Verstappen remained in the pits for the final sequence of laps but again held onto P1 from Norris, Leclerc and Russell, whose improvement pushed team mate Hamilton into another surprise, early elimination after Sainz’s Q1 exit.
Gasly shot up to fifth with his final lap, as Perez, Alonso, Tsunoda, Hulkenberg and Piastri also made it through to Q3, leaving Ocon, Stroll, Albon and Ricciardo on the sidelines alongside Hamilton, who declared “there’s something not right with this car” on his way back to the pits.
Knocked out: Hamilton, Ocon, Stroll, Albon, Ricciardo
Q3 – Verstappen lands pole as Norris slips up
It was another strong start from Verstappen when Q3 started as he clocked a 1m 23.445s to go comfortably quicker than Norris, with Piastri third from Russell and Perez, who reported “horrendous driveability” on his first lap and upped the pressure for round two.
Tsunoda continued to catch the eye in sixth, ahead of Hulkenberg, Alonso, Leclerc and Gasly, with the sole remaining Ferrari driver expressing his confusion at where his pace had gone as he provisionally sat more than a second off Verstappen’s benchmark.
During the second runs, a wild slide for Norris through Turns 13 and 14 – after going fastest of all through Sector 1 – ended any hopes he had of challenging Verstappen for pole, and the Dutchman remained P1 despite failing to improve his time.
After his first-run struggles, Leclerc surged into contention with his final lap to go second, 0.139s away from Verstappen, with Piastri and Russell also getting ahead of Norris and making him pay for that aforementioned mistake.
Tsunoda held on for sixth, as AlphaTauri look to put pressure on Williams in the fight for P7 in the constructors’ standings, with Alonso, Hulkenberg, Perez (losing several places when his last lap was deleted for exceeding track limits) and Gasly completing the top 10.
“It’s very weird,” said pole-sitter Verstappen. “The whole weekend so far has been a bit of a struggle. We definitely improved the car for qualifying and from the first lap it all seemed a bit more together and we could push more. Of course, I’m very happy to be on pole.”
The season-ending 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is set to begin at 1700 local time on Sunday. Head to the RACE HUB to find out how you can catch the action from Yas Marina.