Lewis Hamilton will head into the final grand prix of the season in Abu Dhabi on Sunday still suffering the after-effects of contracting coronavirus – and in the unfamiliar position of third on the grid.
The seven-time world champion missed last weekend’s race in Bahrain with the disease, and although he tested negative in time to travel to Abu Dhabi and race, he is far from over its debilitating effects.
“I am not 100%,” Hamilton said after losing out in the fight for pole to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
“I still have some feelings in my lungs, but I would drive if one of my arms were hanging off. That’s what we do as racing drivers. It won’t be the easiest race but I will manage and give it everything I have got.”
As with many people who have come out of the other side after coronavirus, Hamilton says the main issue for him is one of “overall energy”.
“One of the symptoms is it really drains you,” he said. “I have been trying to sleep as much as I can but recharging is not as easy as it has been in the past.
“Plus, I lost a good amount of weight in that week. So I am not 100% the same as I was last time I raced. But it is in no way going to get in the way of me giving it my all tomorrow.”
One final surprise
The final shootout for pole in this most unusual of Formula 1 season was, against expectations, a thriller.
Mercedes have secured every single pole this year except in the outlier circumstances of the Turkish Grand Prix last month, when rain and a slick, newly laid track surface left Hamilton and Bottas struggling for tyre temperature and grip.
Around the lovely looking but otherwise drab Yas Marina track, Mercedes again found themselves struggling with the tyres.
This time, it was because the car was much more comfortable on the medium tyre used in the second part of qualifying than on the theoretically faster soft in the top 10 shootout.
Hamilton, who had been fastest in the second session, found only 0.134secs on the soft, and Bottas 0.256secs.
Verstappen, whose Red Bull has been creeping ever closer to Mercedes on one-lap pace in the second part of the season as a result of the Brackley-based team ending development of their car, found 0.395secs, enough to swing the pendulum for his first pole since last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
But the race will probably not be fought on the soft tyre. For the top three, it is likely to be a one-stop strategy, switching from the medium to the hard.
Mercedes had a small but important advantage on the medium, but predicting race performance is tricky because of a disrupted weekend in which few teams have done any meaningful race simulations.
“Not a lot of people had a proper long run so it will be interesting,” Verstappen said. “It seems like our top speed is not too bad and that’s always nice. Valtteri and Lewis are very close and it will be a good battle hopefully.”
Millions at stake
The battle for the race win is one for honour and not much else, even if there is still an outside chance Verstappen could sneak ahead of Bottas for second in the championship.
But a lot of attention will be on what happens behind, with third in the constructors’ championship still up for grabs.
Racing Point lead McLaren by just 10 points, and the difference in prize money between third and fourth will be something in the region of $10m. So this matters.
McLaren have given themselves a massive leg-up with a superb qualifying performance, their cars fourth and sixth on the grid, while the Racing Points will start eighth and 19th with Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez.
Lando Norris in fourth, just over 0.2secs from pole, was an even bigger surprise than Verstappen’s performance. And there was pride involved here, too, because it means the Briton has won the qualifying head-to-head with team-mate Carlos Sainz, who is leaving for Ferrari next year.
“I don’t really know where it came from,” Norris said. “We have been confident all weekend, we have been doing a good job and the car has been much nicer than last weekend. But to be only 0.2secs off pole is what surprised me a little bit more.
“I am happy because I felt like I did a very good lap. My gap to Carlos was three and a half tenths – one of the biggest gaps all year – and I’m happy because I felt I deserved it and I put a good lap together. Surprised, but happy and a good position.”
McLaren, though, are wary of what Racing Point can achieve after Perez’s outstanding victory in Bahrain last weekend.
It is the Mexican who is back in 19th on the grid, after incurring a penalty for using too many engine parts this season. But Perez was last at the end of the first lap at Sakhir last Sunday, after being nerfed into a spin by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, and still came through the field to win after Mercedes took themselves out of contention.
“They are going to be coming through and will be very fast,” Norris said. “Sergio has been quite a bit quicker than Lance all weekend and if anyone’s coming through it will be Sergio. But our car is performing well and we just have to keep our heads down.
“It is giving ourselves the best opportunity but it is not something we can get relaxed about.
“For now, we have to concentrate on maximising our own race, looking ahead and not behind. We know the Racing Points and Renaults will be very quick. We will do everything we can to finish as high up as possible.”