F1 Raceweek: Lewis Hamilton relishing Max Verstappen battle in 2019 finale
Lewis Hamilton is relishing another battle with Max Verstappen as he looks to claim an 11th Formula One victory of a 2019 campaign that concludes with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Sunday's race will see Mercedes bid for a sixth consecutive race win at Yas Marina Circuit, Hamilton having come out on top in three of the last five editions.
The world champion earned the 88th pole position of his illustrious career in qualifying, the first time he has topped the grid in his last 10 attempts.
Hamilton was ecstatic to end that barren run in the 21st and final race of the year and has put himself in prime position to add a win which would equal the personal best season tally he previously recorded in 2014 and 2018.
Valtteri Bottas qualified second but will start at the back after taking a host of engine penalties, meaning Verstappen, who won in Brazil last time out, will renew his combat with Hamilton from Interlagos on the front row.
Asked about continuing their scrap, Hamilton said: "Absolutely, yeah.
"I think we are in a slightly better position this weekend. Obviously, Max is continuing to drive well, but I'm looking forward to battling with him for sure.
"It's been such a long slog trying to get this pole position. I don't think my qualifying has been terrible but it's just not been at my usual standard perhaps, so of course it's incredibly satisfying.
"Obviously that's not even half the job done. We've got to battle with the Ferraris and the Red Bulls but I think we put ourselves in the best position possible, so incredibly happy.
"We just really tried to see what we could pull out of the car this weekend. It's well suited to the track and it's been feeling good."
The journey this year has been so special, so different but I am forever grateful for the lessons learnt. The growth all round brings me such pride and joy. Big thank you to @MercedesAMGF1 for continuing to push with me through the ups and downs.— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) November 30, 2019
Verstappen vowed to challenge Hamilton but is aware he faces a tough task due to Mercedes' strength at this track.
"I don't think it's going to be easy, but we are going to give it a good try as a team, try and put them under pressure and see what happens," said the Dutchman, who was 0.360s off Hamilton's track-record pole time.
"We always know that Mercedes are very quick on the long runs. You have to be realistic and I think Mercedes is very quick. But there's still a lot of chances for Sunday.
"Qualifying was pretty decent. We seem to lack a bit of grip compared to [Mercedes] and they are especially very quick in the last sector. They are always very dominant here on this track but we tried to be as close as we could."
LECLERC WILL TAKE RISKS
In the last 10 races in Abu Dhabi, where overtaking is difficult, only once has a driver starting behind the front row won, when Kimi Raikkonen triumphed from fourth in 2012.
The all-Ferrari second row of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel therefore have their work cut out after suffering more frustration following their crash in Brazil.
Leclerc, following Vettel, could not cross the line in time to set a final flying lap in Q3. He initially blamed his German team-mate for driving slowly, though the four-time world champion was also hindered by traffic.
The Monegasque, trailing Verstappen by 11 points in the fight to finish third in the drivers' championship, has vowed to take chances, though he also has fifth-placed Vettel just 19 behind him.
Asked if he could win, Leclerc said: "Yes, definitely, and I will take quite a bit of risk at the start.
"I need to take some risk; I need to finish in front of Max for the championship and in the end I will give it all.
"We'll analyse it [qualifying] and try to understand for it to not happen again, because it's a big shame."
Three-time Abu Dhabi winner Vettel, who will start on soft tyres in contrast to mediums for the two Mercedes, Red Bulls and Leclerc, also had his say on the disappointing qualifying finish.
The German, who arrived to the circuit late this week after the birth of his third child, said: "Alex Albon was backing up because he had a McLaren in front of him. I don't know who was in front of the McLaren or whether the McLaren could be closer.
"It was just a pity because my tyres were very cold to start with and I lost it straight in the first corner and Charles didn't even start the lap."
Team boss Mattia Binotto conceded Ferrari had "screwed up" trying to take a risk by being the last cars out to take advantage of improving track conditions.
BOTTAS SETTING NO LIMITS
Bottas, meanwhile, insisted anything was possible after a retirement last time out ended a run of four straight podiums.
"Everything is always possible," said the Finn. "There's no point for me to set any limit really. Take every opportunity there will be and for sure there will be some.
"We've seen crazy races this year – look back two weeks in Brazil. So anything is possible. Look forward to coming up and taking those opportunities and most importantly having fun in the car.
"We'll find the fighting spirit. I believe. Anything is possible. We do have a good car and normally Sunday is better than Saturday for us so we'll give it all I have for sure.
"We've had many ideas for the strategy and obviously it's going to be a challenge, coming up from there – but I do look forward to it. I'm sure it can be fun trying to come up."
LAST HURRAH FOR HULKENBERG?
The performance of Renault's Nico Hulkenberg will also be closely watched.
Replaced by Esteban Ocon for 2020 and with all other drives now taken, the German will start what may ultimately prove his last F1 race in ninth position as Renault look to hold off Toro Rosso for fifth in the constructors' championship.
"When I got in the car, it was business as usual," said the 32-year-old, who aims to return in the future.
"We still have the job in the constructors, which is very important. I just want to live it, enjoy it, get it done."
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
3. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
4. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
5. Alex Albon (Red Bull)
6. Lando Norris (McLaren)
7. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault)
8. Carlos Sainz (McLaren)
9. Nico Hulkenberg (Renault)
10. Sergio Perez (Racing Point)
2018: Lewis Hamilton
2017: Valtteri Bottas
2016: Lewis Hamilton
2015: Nico Rosberg
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 387
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 314 (-73)
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 260 (-127)
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 249 (-138)
5. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 230 (-157)
1. Mercedes 701
2. Ferrari 479 (-222)
3. Red Bull 391 (-310)
4. McLaren 140 (-561)
5. Renault 91 (-610)
Sunday's race is expected to be hot, with temperatures of up to 27 degrees Celcius, with no threat of rain or high winds.