'At least I can see him': Hamilton takes dig at Verstappen after quali

‘At least I can see him now’: Lewis Hamilton aims dig at Max Verstappen but it’s the championship leader who delivers a crash course in genius and is the master of his own destiny after taking pole for the title-decider

  • Max Verstappen set a stunning lap to get pole position for the title-decider 
  • Strategy may favour Lewis Hamilton who starts on the more durable mediums 
  • With Verstappen on pole it’s unlikely it will end in a crash at the first corner
  • The Dutchman though is the master of his own destiny heading into the finale 

Any notion that Lewis Hamilton would stroll into the pages of sporting history was ripped apart in the space of the 1min 22.109sec it took Max Verstappen to produce a scintillating pole lap.

Hamilton was only second quickest, and all the certainties of the hours leading up to qualifying for the winner-takes-all Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which placed the Briton as overwhelming favourite for title glory, were no more.

That is not to say that the seven-time champion cannot win an unmatched eighth wonder of the world over the course of the 55-lap race. For one thing, strategy may favour him: he will start on medium tyres while Verstappen will be on the less durable but faster softs.

Max Verstappen set a scintillating lap in qualifying to take pole by 0.371 seconds to his rival

Verstappen’s lap surprised many and showed Hamilton won’t be able to stroll to his eighth title

However, it does mean that the Dutchman, who had no choice in his selection of rubber for reasons we will later explain, holds the speed advantage into the first corner and then for the next six or seven laps.

He is assuredly master of his own destiny, and it is doubtful he would swap seats with Hamilton.

But, on the other hand, one never counts out the size of Sir Lewis’s appetite to win and searing ability as a racer. The signs are that we should prepare for a nail-biting thriller by the harbourside.

One thing we can be relatively sure of is that it is unlikely to end in crumpled metal at the first corner.

Despite qualifying second, Hamilton will start the race on the more durable medium tyres

‘At least I can see him,’ said Hamilton, pointedly, at starting second. Yes, it is only Verstappen who could gain by taking them both out, on the basis that he leads 9-8 in race wins and would, subject to any intervention by the stewards, claim his maiden world title if they finished as they start, namely dead level on points.

Whoever takes the crown can hardly be said to have won it lightly. Hamilton charging back from a 32-point deficit going into Silverstone in July ranks among the greatest achievements of his career. His win in Brazil, the pick of recent ones, was extraordinary for its relentless speed and total faultlessness.

But just as brilliant at times, if a little foolhardy at others, has been Verstappen. His pole lap here last evening as the sun went down, his 10th of the season, was a superlative act of defiance or, as his Red Bull boss Christian Horner purred, ‘absolutely insane’.

It was also a compensation for clipping the final bend while roaring towards what would have been the fastest lap in Saudi seven days earlier.

On this occasion he took the tow of his team-mate Sergio Perez into the new Turn Nine. He continued to scream around the rest of the 3.28-mile circuit like a man possessed. On the same rubber as Hamilton at this point — they were both on softs — he was more than half a second faster.

Gasps of astonishment. Wasn’t the momentum meant to be with the Brit after his three successive victories? Wasn’t he meant to have the quicker car with that ‘spicy’ engine?

Verstappen is the master of his own destiny and wouldn’t swap places with Hamilton

Hamilton, for some reason operating without a tow from Valtteri Bottas, improved on his second and final flying lap but was still 0.371sec adrift at the close. Both Verstappen’s laps were good enough for pole.

The orange-shirted army in the stands stood and hollered their delight.

When it was over, Verstappen could barely hide his smile. Hamilton, who was booed by sections of the crowd, was phlegmatic.

‘Max did a great lap today and we just couldn’t compete with that time at the end,’ he said.

As for the difference in their tyres, Verstappen was forced into starting on softs owing to the arcane rule that you begin the race wearing the rubber on which you set your fastest Q2 time.

With Verstappen flat-spotting his left front at Turn One and having no other mediums available, he had to switch to softs.

‘The lock-up wasn’t ideal so it kind of forced our hand,’ said Horner. ‘We were 50-50 going into that session. The soft is going to be a different tyre from Mercedes on race day. We’ll see how it plays out.’

His counterpart, Totto Wolff of Mercedes, put aside rancour to pay a generous tribute to his rivals, saying: ‘You have to say it like it is, it is one-zero to them here.

‘They got the tyres in the perfect window in the last run, the tow functioned flawlessly and that is why they are on pole.

It’s set up to be a nail-biting final to decide who will be the 2021 drivers’ champion

‘I am also worried for the race because their long runs were much better on Friday. Our tyres were just not in the window, theirs were.

‘You can see Q1 and Q2 were ours, it looked like a pretty easy run and then suddenly you lose all the performance.’

But, alluding to the strategic possibilities, Wolff sounded a more optimistic note, insisting: ‘I would much rather be starting on the medium, from P2.

‘We can go for an aggressive undercut and try to control track position. So we will be running lots of programmes and algorithms overnight to see where it ends.’

Sitting side by side after qualifying, Hamilton and Verstappen were asked to put this see-sawing, 22-race contest into perspective. Even in the white heat of battle they know they are starring in one of sport’s epics.

‘At times we have pushed each other to the limit,’ said Verstappen. ‘In 10 or 20 years we will be able to look back and say that we were part of something special.’

They go into the race on the back of an epic season where there have already been a number of incidents

‘Well said, man,’ Hamilton concurred in a rare moment of warmth between the two alpha males. ‘I’m grateful for such a close fight with Max and his team. We have grown stronger in ways we didn’t know we could.’

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The last time Hamilton took part in a final race decider was in Abu Dhabi five years ago, when Nico Rosberg held on to his championship lead before promptly retiring, knowing that he would never again be able to steel himself to beat such a relentless competitor as his erstwhile karting pal.

‘I feel a million times better than I did then,’ said Hamilton, 36. ‘I was facing different resistances in life. Now I am much better and happier. I am definitely a better driver and team-mate.’

Before leaving the track, Hamilton posted a picture of a flag carrying the message: ‘Now it’s Hammer Time.’

On Sunday, as the sun sets, we will discover the truth of that sentiment.

HOW THE RIVALRY HAS EXPLODED INTO OPEN WAR

Here are the key incidents that have caused the relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen to deteriorate:

Apr 8, 2018 Bahrain

Verstappen retired after colliding with Hamilton. The Mercedes driver criticised the Dutchman afterwards and Verstappen hit back saying: ‘It’s easy to blame young drivers’.

Oct 27, 2019 Mexico

Another collision and, although Hamilton won the race, he said afterwards that ‘Max is a magnet for those kind of things’.

Apr 18, 2021 italy (Imola)

Verstappen forced his rival off the track and went on to win the race.

Jul 18, 2021 Britain

The first of three collisions this season. Verstappen crashed into the barriers and ended up in hospital while Hamilton won but was given a 10-second penalty. Red Bull principal Christian Horner said: ‘It’s unacceptable. For me that’s a hollow victory’.

Sep 12, 2021 Italy (Monza)

The duo collided and Verstappen’s car was flung into the air and landed on top of the Mercedes halo protection device. As a result, both drivers had to retire from the race. Mercedes principal Toto Wolff said Verstappen had committed a ‘tactical foul’.

Nov 14, 2021 Brazil

The heat turned up a few notches when Hamilton led qualifying but Red Bull pressed FIA to investigate the Mercedes rear wing. Hamilton was penalised and forced to start the sprint race from the back of the grid, while Verstappen was fined for fiddling with the Mercedes rear wing. During the race, the Dutchman forced Hamilton off the track and, although the Brit went on to win, the two teams spent the week slinging verbal arrows at each other.

Dec 5, 2021 Saudi Arabia

Verstappen was penalised for going off the track and gaining an advantage. Told by stewards to give a place back to Hamilton, he braked hard when Hamilton was close behind and the British driver collided with him. Hamilton, who described his rival as ‘crazy’, went on to win the race.




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