Mercedes driver leads teammate and world champion Hamilton on the front row of the grid at Yas Marina Circuit.
Valtteri Bottas not getting carried away despite record lap to clinch pole for Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Such has been Mercedes' dominance this season that it comes as no surprise they go into the campaign-concluding Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix stationed across the front row.
The only slight shock was that Valtteri Bottas was the man on pole.
Trumping teammate Lewis Hamilton, the freshly anointed 2017 world champion, by 0.172 seconds in qualifying on Saturday, the Finn ruled the timesheets for only the fourth time in his career. Just once previously, in Austria in July, has he turned that into victory.
But as Bottas was at pains to point out at Yas Marina Circuit, after a session in which Hamilton could not keep up, and Sebastian Vettel eventually settled for third, a 33 per cent conversion rate is not really that bad.
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“Of course, when you start in pole, winning is the only target you have,” Bottas said. “Yeah, I might have won only once from the pole, but it’s not so many poles I’ve had, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to be interesting.”
Bottas has had an interesting second half to the season. After victories in Russia and Austria – his first in Formula One – he has struggled to match Hamilton. Not many have, granted, but Bottas conceded in the pre-race buildup that, much like his fellow Mercedes man, he boasted a car to win the drivers’ title.
Lessons have been learnt, Bottas said on Thursday, and he will hope that applies to last week, too. In Brazil, he began on pole also, but relinquished his lead to Vettel on the first corner. It cost him dear: he came home second.
That probably explained why Bottas was not quite as ecstatic after qualifying at Yas Marina as he had been at Interlagos. As his experience two weeks ago underlined, races are won on Sundays, not Saturdays.
“Definitely a good feeling,” Bottas said. “Only fourth [pole] for me. Was just a really clean session for us, everything was really seamless. The team did a really good job.
“But I know the day is tomorrow and there’s no point in getting too excited. Of course, you need to enjoy the good feeling, but it’s only today. Tomorrow is the day that counts.”
Hamilton knows that more than most. The Englishman has nine victories this year, and with three wins in Abu Dhabi already, he will go into the final race still confident of usurping the only man beginning the race in a better position.
Better still, two of Hamilton’s three victories in the capital came when starting second on the grid. Presumably that is why, after the formality of congratulating Bottas on “an exceptional job”, the four-time world champion appeared chomping at the bit to push him hard come lights out on Sunday.
“The last qualifying of the year. Finally it’s done and now we can just get on with the race tomorrow,” Hamilton said. “It’s a very hard track to overtake - there’s a couple of opportunities - but I’ll give it everything I’ve got, for sure.”
With the sun long set yesterday, he seemed poised to extract everything from his final lap. Bottas had set the pace through the first runs, but Hamilton responded like world champions do and looked likely to steal a 12th pole of the season late on.
However, he lost out in the final section, meaning that, just like in 2011 and 2014, he will have to come from behind to sign off the season in style.
“In general, it was a session in which I had to push a lot,” Hamilton said. “In P3 I was a lot more comfortable with the car and then this session was not the case. So I was like, ‘ah, I’ve got a serious fight on my hands here’ and gave it everything I could. But it was on a knife-edge. Ultimately Valtteri did a better job.”