The Saturday in F1 Abu Dhabi GP had a surprise Red Bull Racing pole plus Lando Norris and Daniil Kvyat doing well but Charles Leclerc not.

The FP3 session topped by Red Bull driver Max Verstappen proved an augury for Qualifying in F1 Abu Dhabi GP, who pipped Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes to take his first pole of 2020, and deny Mercedes-powered cars a clean sweep of the season’s Qualifying sessions.

The Dutchman appeared in contention throughout the session, and ultimately usurped Bottas of his position in dramatic fashion, as the final frontrunner to complete a flying lap. His pole came after bizarre Q1 and Q2 outings, when he had a lock up in the pit lane, before further laps were compromised by difficulties relating to his cockpit, and struggles to find grip on medium tyres.

“It was quite a tricky qualifying in the beginning, to get the laps in, and I don’t know, in Q1 I got stuck in the steering wheel with my hand, so I had to do another lap,” said Verstappen. “But then also on the mediums it was a bit tricky, but we managed to get a lap in. In Q3, it wasn’t too bad. This track has so many corners, it’s very easy to make a mistake. It’s a bit like Singapore, where every corner just follows up. It was quite a lot harder than last week.”

The 23-year-old was overjoyed to have finally experienced a breakthrough performance in Abu Dhabi, after a F1 season during which he has only managed one race win. “The whole year, we were closing in a little bit, and I missed out on a few times, but finally to at least sit here once after the dominance they had throughout the year is very nice for us and for the whole team as well.

“To have the pole position here is good motivation for everyone in the team to try and finish it off 2020,” Verstappen added after a convincing outperformance of his teammate Alexander Albon, who wound up fifth. The Thai driver called it his “best and most competitive” Qualifying of the year, though he added that an aggravating error in one of his Q3 efforts cost him a better result.

He was only 0.325s behind the Dutchman, one of the closest he has been all year. Having been eclipsed by Verstappen, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas described an issue that saw him drop behind his adversary, as he failed to extract more pace from his W11 as the session wore on, despite an improving track. The Finn forecasted a close F1 race among those at the front come Sunday.

“I think the main issue was really as the session was going on, I felt it was getting more difficult, and in Q3, I was surprised how little we could extract lap time with a better track and everything,” said Bottas. “Maybe struggled a bit with the front end of the car towards the end of the quali, maybe with the track dropping, but ultimately I think, especially with Red Bull being quick on the soft tyre, and I think we’ve lacked a bit with extracting more from the soft compared to the medium, I think there’s something to learn for the future.”

Uncharacteristically unable to match Bottas and Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, in his first Qualifying since contracting COVID-19, came third. Though at points in contention, the seven-time F1 champion made an error as he ran wide at turn 20 during Q1, and he admits this caused damage to his car. “[The car] did have a little bit of damage,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve gone wide there all weekend, so just a little bit of damage to the floor, but nothing that, it wouldn’t have, I don’t think if that hadn’t been damaged then I would have got pole.

“I’m sure it doesn’t help, but nonetheless the guys did a great job to try and patch it up. They’ll fix it overnight.” Hamilton also confesses to not feeling “100%” after his COVID-19 experience. “I don’t think it’s about talking about whether or not you did a good lap or not, at the end of the day, Max did the job, and we just have to focus through to tomorrow. I’m just grateful to be back, whilst I’m not 100%, I still gave it my all.”

He continued, “I still have some feeling within my lungs, but nonetheless, normally I would drive even if one of my arms is hanging off. That’s what we do as racing drivers. Luckily that’s not the case. It definitely won’t be the easiest of races, physically, but I will manage and give it absolutely everything I’ve got.”

Hamilton outperformed McLaren driver Lando Norris by a somewhat underwhelming margin of just over one and a half tenths of a second, as the latter delivered a sensational performance to place himself P4. It was a result that left Norris ‘very happy’, and the sophomore driver was surprised to beat out some of his team’s closest rivals, among them Racing Point.

The performance from Norris means he wins McLaren’s F1 2020 Qualifying battle. “I felt like I did a really good job,” he said. “I was very comfortable in the car and felt like I nailed my lap on that final run. I definitely took another step forward in Q3, which I’m really pleased about. We’re ahead of a few people we didn’t expect to be ahead of, so great work by the team at track and at the factory to get us in this position.”

On the softs at the start, Norris predicts an interesting race with varying strategies. “I’m on a Soft start and some other cars around me are going to be on the Medium, so I think it’s going to be an interesting race. It’ll probably be quite tough in the first stint, but starting from the second row gives us a great chance to score some decent points.”

One such driver on medium tyres is his teammate Carlos Sainz, who handily came P6 in the session. The Spaniard says overheating in his rear axle prohibited him from progressing further up the field, and laments possibly pushing ‘too hard’.

Perhaps equally impressive, AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat managed to place himself P7 at the end of a session that he said could be the best of his life. “I think that’s probably the best Qualifying lap of my life,” he said. “I’m very happy with, it feels great to put it together here in Abu Dhabi as it’s a long track with many corners. We knew we could be competitive, but it was hard to understand the tyres this weekend.

“I think we did a good job in understanding everything at the right time for Qualifying, so I’ll enjoy the feeling for another hour or so. Then, my focus will turn to the race. Starting from P7, we’ve given ourselves a good foundation and hopefully, we’ll be able to capitalise. When I get a car to my liking, I can be very fast and now I hope everyone can see the result I can achieve. I like the car the way it is now,” Kvyat said, with his teammate Pierre Gasly also in the top ten, occupying tenth. The Frenchman will start ninth.

Kvyat did well to defeat Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, who ultimately came eighth after a largely uneventful session for the Canadian, who explained that the team’s pace did not improve as anticipated throughout Q2 and Q3. Stroll says, though, that strong pace from the outset allowed him to get ‘comfortably inside the top ten’.

Teammate Sergio Perez completed an emotional final Qualifying with Racing Point in somewhat disappointing fashion. Since he is stricken by penalties levied against him as a result of a F1 power unit change, the Mexican opted not to make a bid for Q3 after outqualifying Haas’ Pietro Fittipaldi and securing 19th position.

“It was my last qualifying session with the team and it was definitely a bit emotional,” said Perez. “It’s a shame that we couldn’t do qualifying properly but there’s no point using up tyres or taking risks when we will start at the back of the field anyway. I think we have really strong pace this weekend and I felt great on my Q1 lap, so I’m confident we could have fought for a very strong result in normal circumstances.

“We knew this penalty was coming so our focus has been entirely on making sure we have a strong package for the F1 race. The goal has to be to work our way up well into the points because qualifying has shown just how close the battle for P3 in the Constructors’ Championship will be. My fresh powertrain is a couple of tenths per lap quicker than those towards the end of their life, which should be of big benefit in the race.

“McLaren has both cars in the Top 10 and Renault has the free tyre choice, so it’s going to be a long race where anything can happen. It’s now sinking in that it is going to be my last race with the team. I’m determined to leave here on a high with a great result for myself and everyone in the team. There’s a lot to play for,” Perez said.

At Renault, Saturday’s Qualifying was a deeply disappointing one, with both cars out in Q2 after being P3 and P4 in the afternoon’s FP3 session. The team attempted to get both drivers through on the medium compound, but after Daniel Ricciardo had his lap deleted, and neither driver showed remarkable pace, the team opted to switch to softs.

On these tyres the struggles of the team continued, and ultimately they were relegated to the secondary group with Daniel Ricciardo 12th and Esteban Ocon in 11th. Due to penalties applied to drivers ahead, both will start one position higher on the grid. The former said, “It’s a shame finishing twelfth today as we looked quick this morning with third and fourth and we were aiming for much higher than that.

“We got through to Q2 quite comfortably with just one fast lap on the Softs, but then we struggled to match the pace on both Medium and Soft tyres. I don’t think we know why yet, so we’ll take a look at it tonight. I don’t like starting eleventh, but we both have tyre choice tomorrow so that’s a positive from today as strategy is going to be key in the race.

“We saw last weekend how starting on the Medium tyres can pay off, so we have options. It’s my last race with the team too and I want to make sure we end this on a high,” Ricciardo said, with Ocon providing the insight that they lacked rear grip.

Widely praised for his Q2 performance, meanwhile, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc struggled come Q3. The Monegasque was not wholly satisfied with his performance, which put him ninth, saying that the final sector was troublesome in the final stage of Qualifying. He notes that he will start 12th as a result of penalties incurred last time out in Sakhir, and predicts that tyre management will be a deciding factor on Sunday.

“I am not so happy,” he began. “Even though Q1 was good and Q2 was very, very good on Medium tyres, in Q3 we lost the rhythm, especially in the last sector and it didn’t work out for us. Unfortunately, we have a three-place grid penalty to take, so it won’t make much difference that I am starting on Mediums, as I expect people around me at the start to go for Medium or Hard tyres.

“We were quite competitive in FP2 even though our long runs were affected by the red flag, so our pace shouldn’t be too bad. It’s going to be a tricky race because here in Abu Dhabi it’s always very warm so tyre management will be a big thing, more than usual. I want to stay sixth in the drivers’ championship so for this last race of the season I’ll do all I can to make up as many places as possible,” Leclerc said after teammate Sebastian Vettel finished a disappointing P13.

The German, starting his final race of the 2020 F1 season, said he was happy with his own performance despite the poor result, and insisted that – even with a “perfect” lap – a gain of any more than a tenth would have been unforeseeable.

Here’s how F1 Abu Dhbai GP qualifying panned out

Here’s provisional F1 2021 entry list