Lewis Hamilton avoided two penalties and the unforgiving walls to take pole position at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as title rival Max Verstappen sensationally crashed out of qualifying.
Verstappen leads the drivers’ championship by just eight points with two races remaining and Hamilton has the upper hand at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
Having won the previous two rounds of a scintillating season, Hamilton came here with plenty of momentum but he had to survive two penalty scares in final practice before sealing an important pole on a track where overtaking could be at a premium.
The seven-time world champion was hauled in front of the stewards for allegedly disrespecting double-waved yellow flags and impeding the Haas of Nikita Mazepin – but escaped punishment for the former and was handed only a reprimand for the Mazepin incident.
That left him free to battle for what could prove to be a crucial pole position and he had two average sessions before finding speed in the all-important third.
He was inches from clipping the barriers – which here offer the drivers little to no margin for error – as he set the provisional pole time.
The first #SaudiArabianGP Quali delivered! 🤯
To everyone in the crowd joining us for @F1 for the first time today – thanks for the awesome welcome. ❤️
Let's put on a good show for you tomorrow. 👍 pic.twitter.com/FKrLdo3BN1
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 4, 2021
Verstappen, though, hit the track in the closing seconds and was lighting up the time sheets with a fine run.
The Dutchman would not complete the lap – sitting over 0.200 seconds clear he would put his Red Bull into the wall at the final corner, leaving Hamilton on pole and the championship leader trudging back to the pits.
“I think for all of us we were naturally pushing so hard,” Hamilton said after sealing the 103rd pole position of his record-breaking career.
“It was very close between us all but I think the Bulls were definitely faster today.
“I am proud of the job we have all done. That was one of the most intense qualifying sessions I think we have had for a while.
“It was about trying to find the right balance of being on that knife-edge, you could see from Max we were all on the edge, there is a ‘wall of champions’ everywhere here.
“It was more heart in mouth for all of us and I got that lap right at the end that was good enough but if Max had finished his lap he would have been ahead, but regardless I am happy.”
Hamilton was also full of praise for team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who will start alongside him on the front row with Verstappen behind in third.
Bottas will depart Mercedes at the end of the season but Hamilton enthused about the Finn: “He is the best team-mate there’s ever been in this sport.
“This is a great result. This (a one-two) was the goal, we worked so hard through simulation.
“We have worked together to work on the set-up and get the car to where it needs to be.”
Asked if he was ready to fulfil the role of Hamilton’s wing-man, Bottas replied: “Of course. If there is a chance I can win the race then I will try but if not I will try to maximise the team result.
“I am not fighting for the title any more so I will keep that in mind that Lewis and Max are.”
Verstappen can clinch a maiden world title this weekend if he outscores Hamilton by 18 points – but the 24-year-old has been severely hamstrung following his crash at the final corner.
“I arrived there and my feeling was the same but I had (a) little lock-up,” he said.
“It is extremely disappointing of course, it was a good car in qualifying and everything seemed to be coming together.
“Unfortunately I couldn’t finish the lap, so it was extremely disappointing.”
Verstappen’s speed, though, gives him cause for optimism heading into Sunday’s night race.
“It seems that we can fight, we have the pace. The aim is to win the race,” he added.
“I was really enjoying it but to not finish it was disappointing, especially in this fight.
“It gives me hope because in Qatar we were four-tenths off the pace but here I do think we have a good shot at it.”