The final qualifying of the year in Abu Dhabi acted as a tidy, condensed precis of the 2019 Formula 1 season as a whole.

Hamilton leads convincingly; Bottas close, but lacking that extra something; Verstappen punching above his weight; Ferrari trips over itself, again.

Hamilton’s charge to only his fifth pole position of the season put to bed some of the doubts that may have emerged on his qualifying form through the second half of the season. Ferrari’s sudden emergence combined with Red Bull’s growing strength meant that Hamilton hadn’t been on pole since the German Grand Prix, rarely getting much of a shout in the fight through that period.

But the pendulum swung firmly back in Mercedes’ favour in Abu Dhabi. The strength of the car through the final sector was evident in practice on Friday, meaning the half a second deficit often racked up to the Ferraris in the first two portions of the track could be comfortably clawed back.

The Mercedes W10 car has always been strong through medium-to-slow-speed corners like the ones through the run along the harbour, under the hotel and towards the finish line at the Yas Marina Circuit, with the tyres avoiding too much overheating, an issue that has hurt both Red Bull and, in particular, Ferrari through that portion of the circuit this weekend.

Mercedes’ edge seen in FP2 – the only representative session of the weekend – was clear again come qualifying. While Verstappen was able to run both Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas close, he never looked likely to threaten the Mercedes too seriously, eventually falling three-tenths of a second short of Hamilton at the end of Q3.

Hamilton was therefore always likely to be the man on pole, given Bottas had a back-of-grid penalty to serve – but he kept things clean, setting two laps good enough for P1 en route to pole for the fifth time this season.

“It’s been such a long slog trying to get this pole position,” Hamilton said after the session. “We just kept our heads down, just continuing to try. The guys have been doing a great job around me, all the drivers, so I was really just trying to focus on continue to do my job.

“Yesterday was quite wobbly, so I had to really recompose myself last night and come back today focused. I managed to really dial in the car with great work from the engineers and mechanics continuing to do a great job.”

Bottas may have been unable to take pole, but he was kept out for all three stages of qualifying in as it was “important for the head”, according to Mercedes chief Toto Wolff, “and also for us in terms of benchmarking.”

Bottas benchmarked well, finishing within two-tenths of Hamilton, but was unhappy with how his session had gone.

“We saw yesterday that we had a good pace, but it didn’t feel quite as good today as it did yesterday with my car,” Bottas said. “I struggled a bit more with sliding. I think Lewis made some big improvements since yesterday, and he put some good laps in for qualifying, so he was quicker.

“In any case, I’m going to start last with my 40-place grid penalty or whatever. We’ll find the fighting spirit for tomorrow.”

Gone are the days of 60-place grid penalty counts, thankfully, but even in light of Bottas’ brace of back-of-grid drops, Mercedes still decided to run him for worn tyres in Q2. He’ll start on Mediums, in line with five of the top six.

The only driver not starting on Mediums will be Sebastian Vettel in fifth as Ferrari opted to run split strategies across its cars. Charles Leclerc made a late switch to Mediums for his second run in Q2, making an improvement to secure it as his starting compound.

Ferrari may have lacked the cornering to get close to the Mercedes, but even if it stood a chance, another miscue towards the end of the Q3 would have put paid to those hopes.

As drivers slowed to try and find space through the final sector, Leclerc found himself at the back of a four-car train including Lando Norris, Alexander Albon and teammate Vettel. Vettel was given the hurry-up over radio three times, but struggled with the queue himself, leaving Leclerc to cross the line a couple of seconds after the chequered flag came out.

“On the last attempt, we tried to do whatever we could to take some risks, as well with the track improvement, so being the last going out of the garage,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said after the session.

“We knew it was already tight, but that was a conscious choice. But it was too tight with the traffic we found and we screwed up.”

“Sometimes it happens,” said Leclerc with his best ‘disappointed but not surprised’ face.

“I don’t know whether the situation was unlucky, or if we could have done anything better but yeah, we will analyse it and try to understand to not have it happen again, because it’s a big shame.”

A scruffy final run from Vettel meant Leclerc did not lose any places on the grid as a result of the mistake, but it was another example of Ferrari pushing the limits in 2019 to try and find an edge, only for it to backfire.

Vettel will be hoping to use his Softs to make headway early on in the race on Sunday, but with Mercedes and Red Bull looking as strong as they are through the corners, even the straight-line strength of the SF90 may not be enough to get Ferrari in the fight. With Bottas fighting from the back, a podium to end the season on a high looks to be about all the Italian team can really pin its hopes on.

One final Hamilton versus Verstappen fight to close out the season? Go on then, if you must.

 

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