ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Nico Rosberg edged out title rival Lewis Hamilton on Saturday to take pole position for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where the Mercedes pair will fight for the Formula One world championship.
Hamilton was quicker than Rosberg in the first two qualifying sessions but the German driver set the pace in Q3. Hamilton almost went off track as his brakes locked heading into the final corner.
Like the F1 season itself, this weekend has been close between the teammates, and Hamilton could not quite find enough speed on his last run to prevent Rosberg clinching his 15th career pole.
In Sunday’s eagerly-awaited showdown at the Yas Marina circuit, Hamilton will bid for his second title and Rosberg his first.
“Pressure is one of the hopes I have,” Rosberg said. “Try and push flat out as much as possible and keep the pressure high (on Hamilton).”
Rosberg set a leading time of 1 minute, 40.48 seconds, with Hamilton clocking 1:40.866 and Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas third, ahead of his Williams teammate Felipe Massa. Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth, ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel.
“It’s all worked out well. But of course it’s only one small step. This weekend is about the championship, not pole position,” Rosberg said. “It would have been great if there had been a Williams between us, but that could always happen tomorrow.”
Hamilton leads Rosberg by 17 points overall with double points on offer in Sunday’s race, meaning a win is worth 50. Victory will be enough for Rosberg if Hamilton finishes third. If Rosberg finishes second, he needs Hamilton to cross the line no higher than sixth.
Although Hamilton leads Rosberg 10-5 in race wins, Rosberg is up 11-7 in pole positions this season, including four of the past five races.
His third straight pole should give him further confidence, especially after ending Hamilton’s five-race winning run by beating him two weeks ago in Brazil.
“(The) mind set is that I need to get the job done and continue the form I had in Brazil,” Rosberg said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a great battle.”
Hamilton, the 2008 F1 champion, said on Thursday that he is not feeling under any pressure here, but he made a couple of mistakes in both Q1 — where he went wide on turn 14 — and Q3. Rosberg, his childhood friend and teenage go-karting rival, showed no signs of nerves.
“I didn’t have the best of laps. But tomorrow’s the crucial day,” Hamilton said. “Q1, Q2 was good, but (in) Q3 (I) couldn’t put a comfortable lap together. Nico did a great job.”
Hamilton appeared tense in the post-qualifying news conference, giving only short, terse answers when asked how he will approach the race.
“I’m looking forward, so drive the same as always,” he said.
Toto Wolff, head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, was surprised by Hamilton’s sloppy run in Q3.
“It was a messy lap from Lewis, which was not expected because he had a very good lap in the second qualifying session,” Wolff said. “I won’t tell them anything anymore, they are in their own little bubble and concentrating on the race. I think we should leave them in peace.”
Massa, who lost the 2008 title to Hamilton by one point, was third quickest in third practice.
Six years ago, at the season-ending Brazilian GP, Massa won on his home track and the title was only seconds away, but Hamilton advanced from sixth to fifth right at the end to tally just enough points.
“I don’t remember much from 2008, but this has been a great season,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully I’m older and wiser, although it’s a bit different when you are racing your own teammate.”
The speed of Williams could be an encouraging sign for Rosberg, who is hoping for a car to get between Hamilton and himself on Sunday.
There will be jubilant scenes alongside sad farewells on Sunday night — with four-time F1 champion Vettel competing in his final race for Red Bull before replacing Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.
Red Bull placed a giant sticker on the garage floor which said “Danke Seb!” (“Thanks Seb!”) in recognition of his efforts.
British driver Jenson Button, the 2009 F1 champion, could be leaving the sport entirely with Alonso widely touted to replace him at McLaren.
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