The dual in the desert got even hotter on Saturday with Lewis Hamilton taking pole position ahead of Nico Rosberg for the title deciding race.
Hamilton outclassed Rosberg in every qualifying session and claimed pole with a solid 0.303 second gap.
The Englishman has now taken 12 poles compared to Rosberg’s eight over the course of the season but still needs to win in Abu Dhabi to have any chance of claiming the title.
Rosberg faces the prospect of being among the chasing pack heading into Turn 1 and will be desperate to avoid any collisions needing to finish on the podium to grab his elusive championship.
Behind the Mercedes frontrunners, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo claimed third on the grid, in front of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel. Max Verstappen will start from sixth place with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez behind.
Red Bull Gives Hamilton hope
Hamilton was impressive throughout Qualifying topping all three sessions on his way to claiming his 61st pole position – four behind his hero Ayrton Senna and seven behind all-time record holder Michael Schumacher.
Hamilton said: “Wow, 61 poles. I am going to try to catch Ayrton. It has been a strange feeling coming here and realising it was going to be the last session, the last qualifying in such a great car – you never know when you are going to have a car like this again.”
But, for now, Hamilton’s main focus will be winning in Abu Dhabi and hoping that Rosberg can be pushed lower than third.
And Red Bull may have thrown a lifeline to Hamilton by starting their cars on the super-soft tyres. The rest of the top 10 will be using the faster but less durable ultra-softs creating the scenario where Red Bull could take the lead after the initial pit-stops around Lap 10 or 11.
Although it seems unlikely that both Red Bull’s can separate the Mercedes pair over the course of the race – particularly at a track suited to the Silver Arrows – they have little to lose and have thrown caution to the wind.
Ricciardo said: “We have to try something. It seems to be in a bit of a trend, if we are in a position to qualify on a different tyres we will try and see if it gives us a good opportunity. We will see if it puts us in the fight.”
“We were strong on the long runs and it looks good,” said Ricciardo.
“I think it is going to be fun. There will be a fight between these guys and hopefully we can do something to make it even more exciting than it already is.”
Will Hamilton ‘play games’?
With plenty on the line in Abu Dhabi, drivers are speculating on how Hamilton will run the race.
A podium finish for Rosberg will do nothing for Hamilton increasing the prospects that he will cause mischief for his title rival.
“It could be dramatic if Lewis is going to play games and try to win the championship,” said Renault’s Jolyon Palmer.
“He could try and win the race and the chances are Nico is going to get on the podium, so I hope that he is going try and be aggressive with it, bunch up the pack a bit and then anything can happen because you can overtake a bit here. I’m hopeful something is going to kick off.”
The race will start at 17:00 local time and will run over 55 laps.