Nico Rosberg survived the tension and the pressure, as well as several nervous errors, on Saturday to claim what may be a vital pole position for the decisive season-ending ‘double points’ 2014 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
In a tightly-contested qualifying session, the 29-year-old German produced his best lap of the weekend when he most needed it to outpace championship leading Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton by four-tenths of a second.
Rosberg clocked a best time of one minute and 40.480 in the ‘top ten shootout’ to finish ahead of Briton Hamilton with impressive Finn Valtteri Bottas third for Williams.
Brazilian Felipe Massa was fourth in the second Williams car, ahead of Australian Daniel Ricciardo and his outgoing Red Bull team-mate four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel.
It was Rosberg’s 11thpole position of the season and the 14thof his career. It was also the Mercedes team’s record-equalling 18thpole of the year and their 12thfront row lockout and eighth in succession.
Mercedes Benz also became the first engine supplier to take every pole position in a season since Ford in 1969.
Hamilton leads the title race by 17 points. Rosberg can only take the championship therefore by outscoring his team-mate by 18 points – which means he must win, or finish second, with Hamilton suffering a setback or failing to score.
The race winner will collect 50 points, the runner-up 36 and the man who is third will win 30 points.
“It’s only one step, a very small step,” said Rosberg. “This weekend is about the championship, not about pole position. It would have been great if there was a Williams in between us, but that can always happen tomorrow!”
The most intense drama came at the end of the final shootout when Hamilton, who had clocked a best time of 1:40.920 in Q2, was unable to avoid making minor errors as he clocked a final lap of 1:40. 866. It was not enough to overhaul Rosberg’s time and take pole.
“I genuinely didn’t have the best of laps but I enjoyed the qualifying session,” said a calm Hamilton. “Tomorrow is going to be a special day.”
Asked about how he will approach the first corner, he said: “Same as every time.”
Russian Daniil Kvyat was seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Briton Jenson Button, who may be in his last race for McLaren, Finn Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari and, in his last race for the Italian team, Spaniard Fernando Alonso. The two champions in red will start together on the fifth row of the grid.
After a hot, dry day, the session began at sunset. The track temperature was 32 degrees Celsius and the air temperature 26 degrees, both falling as the conditions changed and twilight approached.
Both Mercedes drivers were out swiftly on Pirelli’s super-soft tyres, evidence of their need to confirm the handling feedback on a circuit that was cooling rapidly.
Hamilton was quickest by one-tenth, despite two errors, before the flag fell to signal an early exit for the bottom five.
That meant farewell to the two Caterhams of Japanese Kamui Kobayashi and rookie Briton Will Stevens, who were 19thand 20threspectively.
Ahead of them, out went Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado in 16thand 18thplaces, sandwiching Mexican Esteban Gutierrez of Sauber, who was 17th. Grosjean will start at the back of the grid after on Saturday being given an extraordinary 20-places grid penalty for infringing the regulations for power-units.
In Q2, Massa set the early pace before Hamilton became the first man to go below 1:41 with a lap in 1:40.920. Rosberg, in pursuit, had to abort his lap after running off the circuit at Turn Nine, at the end of the long straight, and when he returned for another lap, he was 0.539 seconds off the time set by his team-mate.
Massa, showing great verve, grabbed second ahead of his Williams team-mate Bottas, leaving Rosberg fourth ahead of the top ten shootout, heaping pressure on him ahead of the final mini-session.
Out this time went Dane Kevin Magnussen of McLaren, in 11thplace, Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso, the two Force India drivers Mexican Sergio Perez and German Nico Hulkenberg and German Adrian Sutil of Sauber.