x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'Comfortable' Hamilton leaves it late to grab pole

He may have left it late last night but there was no surprise that Lewis Hamilton will start at the front of the grid for today's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

With the sun setting, Lewis Hamilton leaves the pit lane during yesterday's qualifying laps.
With the sun setting, Lewis Hamilton leaves the pit lane during yesterday's qualifying laps.

ABU DHABI // He may have left it late last night to take the top spot with the chequered flag waving as he crossed the start/finish line on the final lap of qualifying, but there was no surprise that Lewis Hamilton will start at the front of the grid for today's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The British driver has looked supreme all weekend in his McLaren-Mercedes, being among the top two fastest in all the practice sessions and being fastest in every section of qualifying, capping it off with a stunning time of 1min 40.948secs on his last timed lap of the day to beat Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull-Renault into second place and clinch the 17th pole position of his career.

Mark Webber was third in the second Red Bull, ahead of the Brawn GP duo of Rubens Barrichello and the man who deposed Hamilton as world champion, Jenson Button. Hamilton was pleased with his display. "Like I always say, it was never easy, but definitely as fun as it looked," he said. "The car has probably been the best it has been all year. It seems to feel quite comfortable on this circuit. What they have done here is incredible and it's a pleasure to drive here. When you have a good car it is a great drive.

"Anything could have happened. Clearly we have been very competitive all weekend, and the car has felt great. I didn't have doubts in my mind about what we have done. It was easy to make mistakes, but fortunately I didn't, so I'm happy with my lap." Hamilton had set his stall out for pole position with a scintillating lap of 1min 39.873secs in the opening part of the session, more then half a second quicker than Button, who was then second fastest in his Brawn.

The Kers (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) has proved an asset for McLaren-Mercedes on the long straights, with Hamilton estimating it was worth four tenths of a second advantage per lap. While Ferrari have struggled for grip in the slower second part of the lap, the superior downforce of the McLaren allowed Hamilton to push and maintain his speed through the 5.55km circuit. For large parts of the 20-minute session he had been more than a second faster than anyone else which, bearing in mind that every one is on low fuel at that point, is an indication of just how dominant he was.

It was the same story in the following 15 minutes that saw the top 10 decided, with an improved time of 1-39.695 - the fastest lap of the race weekend - which was three tenths quicker than Vettel, who was the only other driver to dip under the 1-40 bracket. It was not all plain sailing for the man from Stevenage, though, as he went off at Turn 17 on his opening lap of the final part of the one -hour session. But he gathered himself up and went to the top of the timing screens on his second lap, before his time was beaten by first Jarno Trulli, Webber and then Vettel.

But he held his nerve and set the quickest time by seven tenths of a second. The margin hints that he may be on a lighter fuel load than the Red Bull drivers, but Hamilton is confident that he is on the right strategy to allow him to go for a 12th career victory. "With that lap for sure we should have thought about going longer, but I don't think we were too aggressive [on fuel]. That lap felt like it was getting better and better," he said.

Vettel was surprised by the gap between himself and Hamilton, but believed he had pushed as much as he could and had got the most out of his package. "I think it was the maximum we could do," he said. "So I'm very pleased so far, I think tomorrow we should have a good race and the car is working well here." His teammate Webber added: "No doubt McLaren are quick. I am surprised by Lewis's time. This is a reflection of the second half of the season, but it was a good job by the team and we want to finish on a high."

This is the final race of what has been a long season, having started in March in Australia, and all three drivers were in good humour through the post-qualifying press conference as they no doubt think of the five-month break coming up. Vettel at one point pretended to interview Hamilton, while Webber sarcastically claimed he would go on a no-stop pit strategy, only stopping on the last lap to change tyres as per the regulation.

With nothing at stake the trio looked visibly relaxed and that demeanour is likely to move itself on to the track today when the action in Yas Marina kicks off at 5pm. gcaygill@thenational.ae