Nico Rosberg has pole position for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Now he just needs someone to get in the way of title rival Lewis Hamilton.
The Formula One world championship will go to one of the two Mercedes rivals on Sunday, and Rosberg put himself in a competitive position by edging a nervy-looking Hamilton in Saturday’s qualifying to secure a third straight pole and fourth in the past five races.
Hamilton, however, still holds the advantage.
He has a 17-point lead and only needs to finish second to guarantee a second F1 title. But with double points on offer — 50 for the winner — Rosberg can clinch his first title if he wins and Hamilton crosses the line in third place under floodlights at the Yas Marina circuit.
“Of course pressure is one of the hopes I have. If Lewis feels the pressure and makes a mistake as a result,” an upbeat Rosberg said after securing the 15th pole of his career. “I push flat out, all the time, to try and keep the (pressure) level extremely high. That’s all I can really do.”
Hamilton was quicker than Rosberg in the first two qualifying sessions but almost went off track as his brakes locked heading into the final corner on Q3.
“I didn’t have the best of laps,” Hamilton said. “(I) couldn’t put a comfortable lap together.”
Rosberg set a leading time of 1 minute 40.48 seconds, with Hamilton clocking 1:40.866 and Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas third, ahead of his Williams teammate Felipe Massa.
“It’s only one small step. This weekend is about the championship, not pole position,” Rosberg said. “It would have been great if there had been a Williams between us, but that could always happen tomorrow.”
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo initially finished fifth, right ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel. But they were relegated to the back of the grid after race stewards discounted their qualifying results because of an illegal aerodynamic influence relating to the front wing flaps on their cars.
Daniil Kvyat now starts fifth and Jenson Button sixth.
The speed of the Williams pair is encouraging for Rosberg, who needs one driver to get between Hamilton and himself. But if Rosberg finishes second, he needs Hamilton to cross the line no higher than sixth.
Although Hamilton leads Rosberg 10-5 in race wins, Rosberg is up 11-7 in pole positions this season, although he has not often made the most of them.
“(The) mind set is that I need to get the job done and continue the form I had in Brazil,” said Rosberg, who ended Hamilton’s five-race winning run by beating him two weeks ago in Brazil.
Hamilton, the 2008 F1 champion, insists he is not feeling under any pressure here, but he made a couple of mistakes in both Q1 — where he went wide on turn 14 — and Q3. Rosberg, his childhood friend and teenage go-karting rival, showed no signs of nerves.
Hamilton appeared tense in the post-qualifying news conference, giving terse answers when asked how he will approach the race.
Toto Wolff, head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, was surprised by Hamilton’s run in Q3.
“It was a messy lap from Lewis, which was not expected because he had a very good lap in the second qualifying session,” Wolff said. “I won’t tell them anything anymore, they are in their own little bubble and concentrating on the race. I think we should leave them in peace.”
Massa, who lost the 2008 title to Hamilton by one point, was third quickest in third practice.
Six years ago, at the season-ending Brazilian GP, Massa won on his home track and the title was only seconds away, but Hamilton advanced from sixth to fifth right at the end to deny him.
“I don’t remember much from 2008,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully I’m older and wiser, although it’s a bit different when you are racing your own teammate.”
There will be jubilant scenes alongside sad farewells on Sunday night — with four-time F1 champion Vettel competing in his final race for Red Bull before replacing Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.
Red Bull placed a giant sticker on the garage floor which said “Danke Seb!” (”Thanks Seb!”).
British driver Button, the 2009 F1 champion, could be leaving the sport entirely with Alonso widely touted to replace him at McLaren.