Monday 18 December 2017

Mixed feelings as Hamilton takes pole position

Briton's celebrations are subdued with rival Rosberg favourite ahead of Abu Dhabi decider

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton during practice at Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton during practice at Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi

Paul Weaver

Lewis Hamilton won pole position for today's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix but there was still a glint of destiny in the eyes of Nico Rosberg. Hamilton's celebrations were more subdued than normal. He knows that Rosberg is the overwhelming championship favourite; the German needs to finish in the top three to secure his first title, as he has a lead of 12 points going into the last race of the year.

Rain is unusual in these desert parts, so the X factor that spiced up the last race in Brazil two weeks ago is unlikely to play a part. Instead, Hamilton must hope that his Mercedes team-mate has some of the bad luck that has largely sabotaged his own season. But that seems unlikely, too.

There is the possibility that Hamilton will heed the mischievously advice of Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and back Rosberg in the direction of the cars behind him. But there are risks attached to such a rascally strategy, most obviously that he might be overtaken himself. And Rosberg must still contrive to finish behind three cars if he is to be denied.

The problem for the Briton is that no car out there can beat the Mercedes in a straight fight. Hamilton, a beneficiary of their excellence in recent years, looks likely to come off second best on this occasion even if, as expected, he wins the race.

Both drivers have won nine races, so Hamilton could find himself with the unhappy record of winning 10 times without lifting the championship; no driver has won so often without experiencing the most important glory.

Rosberg has been described as a journeyman, but journeymen are rarely this classy. Or so single-minded. He knows he is not as fast as Hamilton and that is why he has applied himself so assiduously. He will make a worthy champion, certainly a more deserving one than his father, Keke, who won one race in the year of his coronation, 1982.

There was a curious mixture of euphoria and resignation from Hamilton after qualifying. He said: "I wouldn't have had the 61 poles I have now if it wasn't for everyone at the factory, so thanks to them."

He is now four pole wins behind his idol, Ayrton Senna, and seven behind the record holder, Michael Schumacher. He added: "In the first sector, I knew I had pace, so I didn't overcook into turn one and on the rest of the lap I had it under control. So far this weekend, I have been solely focused in getting to this position.

"This evening and tomorrow I'll sit down and work with my engineers and strategist to fully understand the scenario and what I've got to do."

He told Daniel Ricciardo, who will be third on the grid, that he wanted the Australian to finish behind him.

Rosberg did not look as nervous as Hamilton might have hoped. He said: "I have come here to try and be on pole and try and win the race. I am not ecstatic by today. Lewis was just that bit quicker, but there are still opportunities tomorrow and I'll go for the win.

"Adrenaline is always there in qualifying for sure. I was feeling good out there and had a good balance. As qualifying went on, I was feeling better and better and got a good lap, but in the end not quite good enough."

Rosberg, when told that he had qualified in the top two 27 times in a row, replied rather unsurprisingly: "I didn't know that. But that's one of the reasons why I am sitting here at the moment. I'm fighting for the championship at the last race. I'm sure this has been one of the key ingredients. I'm proud of the season I've been able to do until now. It's been a great year, my best."

Ricciardo, who will be a key player along with his Red Bull team-mate, Max Verstappen, qualified third on softer rubber, and said: "We've got to try something different [tyre strategy]. It seems to be a bit of a trend this year. If we're in a position to qualify on a different tyre, we'll try and see if it gives us an opportunity."

Toto Wolff, the Mercedes head of motorsport, said: "We're in a very privileged position because whoever wins will be a Mercedes driver."

He still managed to look worried, despite his privileged position, and said: "Tomorrow is going to be particularly difficult. We will give them support when they need it, not interfere too much, not over-manage, but let them fight it out on track.

"We'll give them a car which has the pace, which today we were able to achieve and a strategy that works for both. That's another tricky area. The Red Bulls have an offset strategy and the Ferraris have pace.

"Nico has his wife and daughter here. Lewis has his mum and friends. There is a lot at stake."

Wolff was asked about the possible backing-up strategy from Hamilton. He said: "The drivers are great sportsmen and they know that overstepping the line would cause a lot of controversy. I trust that it is going to go well, for the benefit of the team and the effort that has been given. Winning the race is our number one priority."

But the Austrian still looked worried. (Observer)

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