Max Verstappen beats Lewis Hamilton for pole at the F1 season finale in Abu Dhabi

Verstappen pole Abu Dhabi
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — A first Formula One championship for Max Verstappen was in reach after masterful Red Bull strategy helped the Dutchman win the pole position overcome an early qualifying mistake to beat Lewis Hamilton for the top starting spot in the title-deciding Abu Dhabi GP.

Verstappen flat-spotted his medium tires in Saturday qualifying, which forced Red Bull to blueprint a plan to give its star any sort of edge over his rival. Sergio Perez was tasked to help and went out first in the final qualifying segment – a move that allowed Perez to tow Verstappen down the long straight at Yas Marina Circuit before Perez bailed out and sacrificed his own lap to aid his teammate.

Verstappen clocked his lap at 1 minute, 22.109 seconds, good enough to hold off Hamilton by 0.371 seconds. The pole-sitter has won in Abu Dhabi the last six years, including Verstappen’s victory last season when he led all 55 laps around the yacht-filled marina.

He refused to presume his pole-winning run guaranteed that Verstappen will dethrone Hamilton’s run of four consecutive titles and become F1’s first Dutch world champion.

“First of all, I never look at the stats because these things can change at the start or whatever, the first lap,” Verstappen said. “I just need to focus on what we can control as a team.”

Hamilton on Sunday will attempt to win a record eighth championship to break a tie with Michael Schumacher. Hamilton and Verstappen are tied in the standings – the first time since 1974 that contenders were even going into the deciding race.

He liked his chances.

“We’re good. Happy that I’m on front row, I can see him,” Hamilton said. “I’m giving it everything.”

Hamilton could ultimately still have the advantage because of Verstappen’s mistake.

After Verstappen flat-spotted his medium tires in Q2, Red Bull changed to soft tires and will start Sunday’s race on rubber that won’t be as durable as the mediums for Hamilton and Mercedes. Red Bull boss Christian Horner said during qualifying “the lockup wasn’t ideal, that kind of forced our hand,” but neither he or his driver were worried.

“I wanted to try to start on the mediums but I flat-spotted,” Verstappen said. “But I felt good on the soft so it’s not really a difficult decision to make and then just say `OK.’ ”

Lando Norris for McLaren was a surprise third – beating out both Verstappen and Hamilton’s teammates. Perez was fourth for Red Bull, followed by Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and at last Hamilton’s outgoing Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in a disappointing sixth.

Norris said he’ll have the best seat in the marina come Sunday.

“I’m very excited to see everything unfold, to see what goes on,” Norris said. “It’s just a genuine pleasure to be in this position to see everything that’s been going on this season between Max and Lewis and to watch the battles and to watch the racing.”

Hamilton was loudly booed by a sold-out crowd packed with Verstappen fans. The British driver shrugged off the reception, noting “there’s a lot of (Dutch) orange here,” but acknowledged “you’re always surprised by the boos no matter how many times you experience it.

“But I don’t care, it doesn’t make a difference to me,” he said. “If it was a cheer, if it was a boo, it makes no difference to how I go about my life. If anything, I use that as fuel.”

Hamilton won three consecutive races to slice all 19 points off Verstappen’s hold on the championship going into the finale, and this title fight has been likened to both James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda in 1976 and Ayrton Senna vs. Alain Prost in 1990.

But Hamilton has been involved in his own tense battles before, including a one-point victory over Felipe Massa for his first championship in 2008 and a five-point loss to teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016. He said this year is “a million times different” from 2016, his last challenge and defeat.

“Much, much different scenario,” said Hamilton, who added he’s a better driver and better teammate now. “We’re just in a different place in life. We’re just in a much better and happier place.”

Verstappen has faced heavy criticism this year for an aggressive driving style that has led to penalties from the stewards, an accusation by Hamilton last week that Verstappen drives over the line, and on-track collisions with his rival.

He’s said all weekend that he’s been treated unfairly on and off track, and Horner wondered if a narrative had not been formed to intentionally pressure Verstappen into mistakes.

Ahead of the finale, Verstappen said he was ready to go.

“For tonight and the coming hours, I think what’s most important is good sleep,” Verstappen said. “But also I have friends and family around, so I am not going to do anything different to what I normally have been doing.”

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”