Hamilton grabs last pole of season
This time, Lewis Hamilton is not going to lose any sleep on the eve of the Formula One title decider.
The defending champion is second favorite heading into today's race with the pressure on rival Nico Rosberg, who is chasing his first ever title.
Rosberg holds a 12-point lead and needs only to finish third — even if Hamilton wins — to take the F1 title, 34 years after his father Keke Rosberg was crowned F1 champion for the only time.
Two years ago, the championship also went down to the last race in Abu Dhabi. But Hamilton was in the stronger position and had it all to lose because of a controversial double points rule that applied only to the final race and kept Rosberg in contention.
It also kept Hamilton up all night in what he said is the only time he has failed to sleep the night before a race during his entire career.
"The reason I wasn't able to sleep then was that I'd worked so hard during the year, and faced lots of different challenges," Hamilton said Saturday after taking pole position in qualifying for Sunday's race. "I had more wins but that double points system could have just thrown everything into the pit when it wasn't deserved. I have everything to gain tomorrow so it's the complete opposite end of the spectrum and I'm super excited."
Hamilton is used to this kind of pressure, and knows how it feels either way.
He also won on the last day of the season in 2008, beating Brazilian Felipe Massa by one point in a dramatic finale.
Massa won the Brazilian GP and thought he had sealed the championship but, with Massa's Ferrari team celebrating wildly, Hamilton just did enough to cross the line in fifth right at the end.
The previous year, Hamilton lost the title by one point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
This season, both Mercedes drivers have won nine races each in a topsy-turvy campaign that started out largely in Rosberg's favor when he won the opening four races of the campaign as Hamilton struggled with engine problems.
Although Rosberg trailed Hamilton by 19 points heading into the summer break, he then turned the tables on Hamilton to lead again by 33 points.
But victory in the past three races has kept Hamilton in the hunt.
"It sets up the perfect scenario for tomorrow's race," Merecedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. "It's going to be a thrilling showdown to a fantastic season."
In the setting evening sun on Saturday, Hamilton dominated qualifying to clinch pole ahead of Rosberg.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo qualified in third and starts on the second row with Raikkonen.
With temperatures cooling on the Yas Marina circuit, Hamilton edged out Rosberg by .303 seconds to take his career-best 12th pole of the season and 61st of his career — just four behind Brazilian great Ayrton Senna.
"It's kind of crazy to think I have 12 poles," a jubilant Hamilton said. "We put the car in a real sweet spot today."
Although Rosberg entered the race not needing to push for pole he insisted that he was going flat out.
"I'm not ecstatic about today," said Rosberg, who took pole here in the two previous years. "Lewis was just a little bit quicker."
Rosberg has finished runnerup to Hamilton for the past two years but his season has seen the best and most focused driving of his career.
"I'm proud of my season," Rosberg said.
Both drivers may be relieved to see that teen sensation Max Verstappen is starting the race from sixth on the grid alongside Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.
The 19-year-old Dutchman has been involved in several altercations with other drivers this season — notably Vettel and Raikkonen — and has earned a reputation for risky overtaking moves.
With Vettel and Verstappen vying to finish in fourth place overall, and only five points separating them, both Mercedes drivers will be looking to steer well clear of that private battle.
Getting stuck behind another driver in midfield is another potential headache.
In the 2010 title decider, which also went down to the wire in Abu Dhabi, title favorite Fernando Alonso entered the race with an eight-point lead.
But, following a tactical error, the Spanish driver got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov for much of the race and was unable to overtake as Vettel secured his first title.
Lewis Hamilton gets out of his Mercedes after gaining pole for today’s Grand Prix