Ferrari do not regret their failure to sign Lewis Hamilton for the 2021 season as they are confident Charles Leclerc can challenge the Formula One champion.

Hamilton has won six of his record-equalling seven world championships with Mercedes, although he has not yet committed to the Silver Arrows for the coming campaign.

A resolution is expected soon, but links to rivals Ferrari have never been far away.

A blockbuster move will not materialise on this occasion, however, as the Scuderia have secured Carlos Sainz Jr next to Leclerc in their 2021 line-up, replacing Sebastian Vettel.

And team principal Mattia Binotto is confident they have made the right move.

He told Sky Sports: "I don't think there will be regret because, at the end, when we took some decisions, we took them thinking they were the right decisions and today we have a fantastic driver like Charles, where we invested a lot as Ferrari.

"I think he's got a lot of talent. If he's got the right car, I'm pretty sure he can challenge Lewis Hamilton.

"We've made our choices and I think, together with Carlos, we are very strong. I don't think there will be any regret."

Although Leclerc - fourth two years ago with two wins to his name - would appear the obvious Ferrari contender, Binotto is not naming a "number one".

Sainz finished seven points better off than his new team-mate in 2020 while still with McLaren.

"There is not a number one and number two," Binotto said. "They will have equal opportunities - certainly at the start of the season. I'm pretty happy then that they are free to fight.

"I think what we have to do as usual is to optimise the team points, and when you optimise the team points, normally you are optimising the drivers' points as well. Team points is the number one.

"Later in the season, let's see how things will progress, let's see what objectives individual drivers can maybe achieve and if we need to adopt a different strategy, but at the start of the season, they will be free to fight."

Formula One world champion and Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton has capped a stellar year by receiving a knighthood.

One of the highest honours bestowed in his native United Kingdom, Hamilton was named on the New Year's list on Wednesday.

It comes after Hamilton equalled Ferrari great Michael Schumacher as the driver with the most F1 titles this season.

Hamilton has seven world championships, six of them with Mercedes after reigning supreme during a coronavirus-hit 2020 campaign.

The 35-year-old also surpassed Schumacher's previous record tally of 91 race wins this term. He now has 95 and the 11 in 2020 represents his joint-best return for an F1 season in his legendary career.

Hamilton – who was made an MBE in 2008 – has also had a pole position in 14 consecutive seasons (from 2007 to 2020). Schumacher previously had the best such record (13 from 1994 to 2006).

"Lewis is one of the very greatest racing drivers of all time and the most successful British sportsperson of his era," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said.

"Around the world, he has long been recognised for his sporting achievement; this year, he combined his excellence on the track with a powerful voice to fight discrimination.

"In every sense, he led the way in 2020. The news that he is to receive a knighthood shows that he is now receiving the recognition he has earned during a career of unparalleled success in motorsport.

"The UK can be very proud to have a champion and ambassador of the calibre of Sir Lewis Hamilton."

Toto Wolff will continue as Mercedes team principal for three more years as part of a change in ownership that includes INEOS becoming a major shareholder. 

The chemical giant, already the principal partner of the team, has purchased a one-third stake in Formula One's leading constructor. 

Daimler will reduce its 60 per cent shareholding and Wolff's will increase from his current 30 per cent, thereby creating three equal controlling partners. 

In announcing the restructure, Mercedes also confirmed on Friday: "Under the new shareholding structure, Toto Wolff will continue in his role as team principal and CEO for a further three years, leading the executive operations of the company and the racing team. 

"He will have the subsequent opportunity to transition to a new executive function within the organisation when he decides it is the right time to do so." 

Wolff said: "I am pleased to begin this new chapter for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team.

"This team is like a family for me. We have been through so many highs and lows together that I cannot imagine working with a better group of people in this sport – and I am very happy to continue together into this new era." 

Daimler and Mercedes-Benz chairman Ola Kallenius said INEOS' investment was "a sign of the strength of the organisation". 

He added: "We remain firmly committed to Formula One, and the forthcoming cost cap along with the new shareholding structure put us in an even stronger position for continued success.  

"With an even closer alignment to our Mercedes-AMG performance division beginning in 2021, and Toto's continued leadership in the coming years, the future is bright for Mercedes-Benz in Formula One." 

Mercedes have won seven constructors' titles in a row and have had a driver win the championship in each of those years. Lewis Hamilton, champion in 2020, has won six of those titles, with Nico Rosberg claiming the other in 2016. 

Hamilton, who matched Michael Schumacher's record of seven drivers' championships this year, is expected to sign a new contract with Mercedes in the coming weeks. 

Lewis Hamilton is hopeful his new contract with Mercedes can be agreed before Christmas.

Hamilton is out of contract after winning a seventh Formula One drivers' championship in 2020, matching Michael Schumacher's record.

But the Briton is keen to stay with the Silver Arrows for next season, which would be his ninth campaign with the team.

Talks were set to ramp up after the title was secured in Turkey last month, yet Hamilton subsequently tested positive for coronavirus, missing the Sakhir Grand Prix before returning to finish third in Abu Dhabi.

With the season finished, Hamilton is now again targeting swift progress as negotiations resume.

"Hopefully [it will be agreed] over the next couple of weeks," he said. "We would love to get it done before Christmas, I think.

"I plan to be here next year. I want to be here next year. I think us, as a team, have more to do together and more to achieve both in the sport but even more outside the sport.

"I hope we can begin this week, discussions, and hopefully get it tied up before Christmas."

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is similarly optimistic, insisting the delay up to now was solely due to Hamilton's COVID-19 battle.

"We will have this conversation," Wolff said. "We were delayed.

"We always said we would do it after the title was won, and then the virus delayed us for another 10 days, two weeks.

"Now we just have to sit down, maybe virtually, maybe live."

Hamilton wrote on his Twitter page following the final race of 2020 on Sunday: "That's a wrap for the season!

"Gotta say a massive thanks to my team. It's been one hell of a year with you guys and I'm so grateful for everything we've accomplished together.

"Let's keep making #HIS7ORY together."

In the strangest of Formula One seasons there was almost a comforting familiarity about Lewis Hamilton's continued excellence.

The coronavirus pandemic meant the beginning of the campaign was ultimately delayed by four months and led organisers into a frantic rescheduling of the calendar.

To their credit, a competitive schedule was put together and 17 races were held after which Hamilton stood atop the drivers' standings for the seventh time.

Along the way, the Briton racked up several new records and won 11 races. It perhaps would have been more but Hamilton contracted COVID-19 and missed the penultimate race in Bahrain and was not quite with it physically for the season-ender in Abu Dhabi.

It was Red Bull's Max Verstappen who took the top step on the podium in the latter race and, now the dust is beginning to settle on the 2020 season, we look at some of the best facts of the year thanks to our friends at Opta.


7 - Mercedes driver Hamilton has now equalled Michael Schumacher as the driver with the most F1 titles. He has seven, six of them with the Silver Arrows.

95 - During the 2020 season, Hamilton surpassed Schumacher's previous record tally of 91 race wins. He now has 95 and the 11 in 2020 represents his joint-best return for an F1 season in his legendary career.

14 - Hamilton has had a pole position in 14 straight seasons (from 2007 to 2020). Schumacher previously had the best such record (13 from 1994 to 2006).

190 - At Sakhir, Racing Point's Sergio Perez became the driver with the longest wait from their debut to record a maiden F1 win. The Mexican did so at the 190th attempt.

13 - Pierre Gasly was the 13th French driver to win an F1 grand prix after his triumph in Italy. He was the first from the nation to do so since Monaco 1996, when Olivier Panis was victorious. The AlphaTauri driver was three months and 12 days old at the time of Panis' victory.

53.377 - Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas recorded the fastest pole position in F1 history (53.377 seconds at the Sakhir GP).

329 - Alfa Romeo veteran Kimi Raikkonen surpassed Rubens Barrichello (322) in the 2020 season as the driver to have appeared in the most grands prix ever .

7 - Mercedes surpassed Ferrari (1999-2004) as the team to have recorded the most constructors' titles in a row.

1,000 - Ferrari made their 1,000th F1 appearance at the Tuscany Grand Prix at the team's training track in Mugello. The Scuderia are winless in 23 grands prix, their third-worst streak in history.

17 - This season saw 17 races held, fewer than any other campaign in the last decade. Of those, 13 were in Europe (76.5 per cent). The campaign started on July 5, the latest in F1 history, and ended on December 13, the third-latest date after 1962 and 1963.

Lewis Hamilton felt "massively" affected by his experience of COVID-19 after he finished third on his return to Formula One in an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that was won by Max Verstappen.

Seven-time champion Hamilton missed the previous race in Bahrain after testing positive for coronavirus but was able to get back in the car for the final grand prix of the season in the United Arab Emirates.

The Mercedes driver and team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who finished second, performed doughnuts on the grid at the end of a campaign in which the Silver Arrows won the drivers' and constructors' championship.

Despite being unable to gain any ground in the race, Hamilton admitted he found it much more difficult to cope with the physical demands after suffering from coronavirus.

"That was a really hard race for me physically. All year I've physically been fine but today I wasn't, so I'm just glad it's over. A big, big thank you to the team for their continued support, it's still a fantastic result to get two podiums," said Hamilton.

Asked specifically if contracting COVID-19 impacted his race, he replied: "In terms of physically, massively, yeah. I don't think I've ever been so drained [during a race].

"My body isn't feeling very good. But look on the bright side I made it through, I didn't think at any time last week I'd be here so I'm truly grateful for my health and to be alive.

"Looking forward to recovering over the next period of time we have and getting back into training and getting my body back to where I know it should be.

"You can't win them all. Considering the past couple weeks I've had, I'm really genuinely happy with the weekend. It's obviously not 100 per cent, it's not as good as perhaps we'd like, but congratulations to Max."

Pole-sitter Verstappen had no interest in joining in with performing doughnuts on the track after a dominant race in which he led every lap.

"I enjoyed that I won, I'll enjoy the podium and then I'll enjoy going home," said the Red Bull driver.

"It was really enjoyable yesterday already but today we had a good start and from there it was just looking after the tyres, but the car had really good balance. Once you start up front you can control the pace a bit more and it makes your life a bit easier.

"I saw they were dropping off behind me [late on] so I could take it a bit easier. I had to go through the back markers but overall it was just a very strong race for the team."

Bottas confessed to being surprised by the pace Verstappen had and did not think he could have done anything more to deny the Dutchman the victory.

"I think Red Bull was too quick today – surprisingly quick. We thought race pace would be pretty identical, but they were able to control the race," said Bottas.

"I was trying everything I could but couldn't keep up with them. I feel like it was a solid race from my side, no mistakes and I felt like I couldn't get more out of the package we had.

"At least ahead of my team-mate and it's been a while since I've been on the podium and it's gonna be nice even though there's not going to be champagne there."

Max Verstappen stormed to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as Lewis Hamilton was unable to sign off his Formula One title-winning season with a win. 

The Red Bull had too much power around Yas Marina Circuit for the Mercedes duo, with pole-sitter Verstappen leading throughout to take his second victory of 2020 in the final race of the campaign. 

Valtteri Bottas and seven-time champion Hamilton – back on the track after missing last weekend's Sakhir Grand Prix due to a positive coronavirus test – were no match for the Dutchman. 

It was the sixth straight year the pole-sitter has won in Abu Dhabi, but with Bottas finishing second he remained ahead of Verstappen in the drivers' standings to be runner-up again. 

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were the only drivers to swap positions on a tame opening lap, though the AlphaTauri driver regained his spot on the next lap. 

Verstappen was around three seconds clear at the front when a virtual safety car was deployed on lap 10 after Sergio Perez – the winner last weekend – lost power and had to retire from his final race with Racing Point. 

The 23-year-old, as well as the two Mercedes cars, used the opportunity to switch to hard tyres, the Silver Arrows avoiding a repeat of the double-stacked pit stop debacle that cost them victory in Bahrain last weekend. 

Hamilton still voiced his strategic concerns over team radio and after the full safety car's in lap, Verstappen was quick to restore his cushion at the front. 

He was over eight seconds clear of Bottas by lap 37, with Hamilton a further three adrift and unable to catch his team-mate. 

Despite some concerns about degrading grip, Verstappen continued to increase his advantage for a serene victory, with fellow Red Bull driver Alex Albon taking fourth ahead of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. 

McLaren consequently pipped Racing Point to third in the constructors' standings, though Sainz faced a post-race investigation for driving too slow in the pits that could have ramifications on their finish.

In another season lacking surprises, Max Verstappen raised eyebrows by snatching his first pole position of the season at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday.

Lewis Hamilton, returning after missing the Sakhir Grand Prix last weekend due to a positive coronavirus test, will start the last race of a season he has dominated in third place behind Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

The Silver Arrows have won the last six races at the Yas Marina Circuit, but Verstappen has a golden opportunity to end that run under the lights.

Lights out is scheduled for 17:10 local time (13:10 GMT) on Sunday.

 

WHAT HAPPENED IN QUALIFYING

Verstappen joined Lance Stroll as the only non-Silver Arrows driver to take pole this year under the lights at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Red Bull's Verstappen sealed his place at the front of the grid right at the end of qualifying with a lap of one minute, 35.246 seconds.

Bottas was 0.025s slower than the Dutchman, while Hamilton was 0.086s off the pace and Lando Norris took an impressive fourth.

 

THE STARTING GRID

​1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull), 2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), 4. Lando Norris (McLaren)
5. Alex Albon (Red Bull), 6. Carlos Sainz (McLaren)
7. Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri), 8. Lance Stroll (Racing Point)
9. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri), 10. Esteban Ocon (Renault)
11. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault), 12. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
13. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), 14. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
15. Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo), 16. George Russell (Haas)
17. Pietro Fittipaldi (Haas), 18. Nicholas Latifi (Williams)
19. Kevin Magnussen (Haas), 20. Sergio Perez (Racing Point)

ABU DHABI TALKING POINTS

Verstappen is one podium away from equalling his highest tally of top-three finishes in a season, but he is unlikely to be celebrating unless he takes the top step.

Hamilton said on Friday that his car felt different during practice after George Russell stepped in to replace him, but he has a record five wins in Abu Dhabi and will be expected to deliver yet again on race day.

Sergio Perez claimed his maiden victory last weekend, but will start from the back of the grid in the season-ending race after having a new power unit fitted in his Racing Point.

Perez would have otherwise been hoping to push for a podium finish amid speculation over whether he will replace Alex Albon - who qualified in fifth - at Red Bull.

Sebastian Vettel will begin his final race for Ferrari back in 13th on the grid, while Racing Point - leading McLaren by 10 points and 22 ahead of Renault - will look to seal third place in the constructor standings.

 

WHAT THE DRIVERS SAID

Max Verstappen (pole position) - "I said before I went to qualifying it's going to be the final send of the season and we did that so very happy with that. It was quite a tricky qualifying in the beginning, to get your laps in, especially at this track, the last sector, there are so many corners where you can make a mistake. But luckily everything came together in that final lap."

Valtteri Bottas (2nd) - "I think the main issue was we couldn't really get the soft tyre to work properly as it should. All the way until qualifying the medium tyre was feeling better for us than the soft. I think we made some improvements; still, looking at the result I don’t think we got 100 per cent out of the single lap from the tyres. And the lap itself, I wasn't fully happy with how everything went; the balance was not quite perfect."

Lewis Hamilton (3rd) “I’m not 100 per cent, I still have some feeling within my lungs, but nonetheless, normally I would drive if one of my arms was hanging off – that's what we do as racing drivers. It definitely won't be the easiest of races physically, but I will manage and give it everything I've got."

Charles Leclerc (12th) - "From Q1 to Q2 there was a nice progression but then in Q3 we lost out a little bit for some reason. I have no explanations yet but I couldn't finish the last sector with the rear tyres and it's a shame really, because before that it was going really well, but it is the way it is."

Sergio Perez (20th) - "We've put everything together for the race. We've focused on every single bit, so we'll see what we are able to do. But a lot of things can happen."

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 332
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 205
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 189
4. Sergio Perez (Racing Point) – 125
5. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) – 112

Constructors
1. Mercedes – 540
2. Red Bull – 282
3. Racing Point – 194 (after 15-point deduction)
4. McLaren – 184
5. Renault – 172

Max Verstappen snatched his first pole position of the season ahead of Mercedes duo Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Verstappen joined Lance Stroll as the only non-Silver Arrows driver to take pole this year under the lights at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Red Bull's Verstappen sealed his place at the front of the grid in the last race of the season right at the end of qualifying with a lap of one minute, 35.246 seconds on Saturday.

Bottas was 0.025s slower than the Dutchman, while Hamilton - returning after missing the Sakhir Grand Prix following a positive test for coronavirus - will start behind his Mercedes team-mate in third after he was 0.086s off the pace.

Verstappen, who led a Red Bull one-two ahead of Alex Albon in FP3, said: "Very happy with that. It was a tricky qualifying at the beginning to get laps in. In the last sector there are so many corners you can make a mistake. Luckily everything came together in that final lap.

"It is a long season for everyone, a lot of races in a row. It was a good final qualifying for everyone in the team. We are very happy with it. The whole year when you're behind and getting closer is a bit frustrating but very, very pleased with today.

"It seems like we have a decent top speed this weekend. Hopefully this will work out for tomorrow."

Lando Norris took an impressive fourth place for McLaren, with Albon fifth and Carlos Sainz sixth.

Sebastian Vettel will start his final race for Ferrari in 13th, one place behind team-mate Charles Leclerc – who qualified ninth but has a three-place grid penalty for causing a collision in Bahrain last week – in what has been a miserable season for the Scuderia.

 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:35.246
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.025s
3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.086s
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.251s
5. Alex Albon (Red Bull) +0.325s
6. Carlos Sainz (McLaren) +0.569s
7. Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri) +0.717s
8. Lance Stroll (Racing Point) +0.800s
9. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.819s
10. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.996s

The returning Lewis Hamilton said his Mercedes felt different to how he left it after he was outpaced by Valtteri Bottas in practice at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Friday.

Hamilton was replaced by George Russell in Sakhir last weekend after the seven-time Formula One world champion tested positive for coronavirus.

The Brit was cleared to get back behind the wheel for the last race of the season at the Yas Marina Circuit, where he was fifth and second-quickest in FP1 and FP2 respectively.

Hamilton's car had braking issues early in the first session and he later complained of not being able to find a gear as he was stuck in the pit lane before getting on the move again.

The 35-year-old, who sealed a record-equalling title last month, did not want to discuss contracting COVID-19 but was happy to admit he did not find it easy back on track.

Asked about having tested positive for coronavirus, he said: "It's not something I really want to go deeply [into] about. It was an experience, for sure, and I'm just happy to be back in the car and… grateful to be back with the team."

He added: "It felt like I'd spent a lot of time away from the car – it was very odd. It was about refamiliarising myself with the car.

"The car was not quite the way it was when I left it, in the sense that the balance wasn’t the same that I had got to previously, but I am working my way back to where I am comfortable with it.

"It definitely took a minute to get back and used to it for the first session and the second one, still getting my bearings, but not too bad. I think we got through most of the stuff we missed out in the 40-minute session in the start of the day."

Hamilton is confident normal service will be resumed over the weekend.

He said: "It's definitely been a bit of a messy day – there's a lot going on and the guys have been on the road for three weeks.

"We've had a couple of gremlins, but we punched through them like we always do and tomorrow, I know, will be better."

Bottas was 0.203 seconds faster than Hamilton, with Max Verstappen - quickest in FP1 - third for Red Bull, as all three drivers clocked their best times on medium tyres under the lights in the second session.

Lewis Hamilton has been cleared to race in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend after returning negative coronavirus tests.

The seven-time Formula One world champion missed the penultimate race of the year in Bahrain last Sunday after contracting COVID-19.

Hamilton completed a period of self-isolation and has been given the green light to get back behind the wheel of his Mercedes at the Yas Marina Circuit.

George Russell, who replaced the Brit in Sakhir, will return to Williams as Hamilton looks to complete another magnificent season with a victory.

A Mercedes statement said: "The Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team is pleased to confirm that Lewis Hamilton will drive for the team in this weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

"Lewis tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday prior to completion of his self-isolation period in Bahrain. This enabled him to travel to Abu Dhabi on Thursday afternoon, and he tested negative on arrival.

"Lewis has therefore completed the protocols required by the FIA for his entry to the paddock tomorrow and will be able to take part in the race weekend.

"George Russell will return to Williams Racing for the final event of the 2020 season."

Russell missed out on a dream maiden win in the absence of Hamilton due to a botched pitstop during a safety car period when the Englishman was on course to take the top step of the podium, ultimately finishing ninth.

Hamilton leads team-mate Valtteri Bottas by a mammoth 127 points and wrapped up a record-equalling title in Turkey last month.

George Russell may yet receive another opportunity to stake his long-term claim for a Mercedes seat with Lewis Hamilton's status for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix still unclear.

Hamilton secured a seventh Formula One world title by winning in Turkey last month but saw a five-race win streak halted after he contracted coronavirus.

The Briton won the Bahrain Grand Prix but missed the second race at Sakhir as he was required to quarantine, with Williams driver Russell drafted in as his replacement.

A series of unfortunate events denied Russell what would have been a memorable victory, but should Hamilton not make it to Abu Dhabi a further opportunity could present itself.

Hamilton's situation is doubly complicated as he is still under quarantine in Bahrain, while Abu Dhabi has its own strong restrictions. F1 does have an exception but the paddock was required to travel on Monday meaning Hamilton - who has his own private jet - would need to get dispensation.

LAST TIME OUT 

Hamilton's absence provided ample opportunity for the rest of the field and Russell was flying on his debut for the Silver Arrows.

After qualifying second, Russell appeared on course for victory until a costly pit-stop error dropped him to fifth and, having fought back to second, he suffered a puncture with 10 laps to go when chasing eventual victor Sergio Perez. He had to settle for ninth.

Perez had fought back from a first-lap spin to secure a maiden F1 victory on his 190th start - a record wait for a first win.

Esteban Ocon split Perez from his Racing Point team-mate Lance Stroll, while pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas finished back in eighth as a result of Mercedes' gaffe in the pits.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen were expected to challenge for the win but both went out in the same incident that saw Perez spin on lap one.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN ABU DHABI

If, as many pundits suggested, last time out was a straight shoot-out between Russell and Bottas for a 2022 Mercedes drive then the former really enhanced his claims.

After the race Russell expressed his hope his performance has given Mercedes chief Toto Wolff a "headache" not just for 2022 but before.

Whether Russell is back with the Silver Arrows or at Williams this weekend remains to be seen but either way expect the Briton to put on a determined show.

Perez is, surprisingly, still without a seat for 2021 despite sitting fourth in the standings. He could yet still be employed by Red Bull as Verstappen's team-mate but this could be the last time we see the Mexican on the grid until 2022.

Verstappen and Leclerc will want to finish strongly after their disappointment last time out, while Sebastian Vettel drives for Ferrari for the last time this weekend before racing for Aston Martin next year.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Better late than never - The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 13 will be the third latest date for an F1 race in history after South Africa in 1962 and 1963.

Valtteri's pole woe - Bottas has failed to win 11 of the 16 races in which he started from pole position, including the last four grands prix (68.75 per cent).

No stoppin' Verstappen in qualifying - The Dutchman is the only driver on the grid to have beaten his team-mate in every qualifying session this season (16-0 over Alexander Albon).

Say goodbye to Sergio - Perez needs to reach the podium in Abu Dhabi to guarantee finishing fourth in championship this year, the best place in a year for a Force India/Racing Point driver

A fitting swansong for Vettel? - Vettel has more victories on Asian circuits than any other driver in F1 history (29). His last win was in Singapore (2019).

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 332
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 205
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 189
4. Sergio Perez (Racing Point) – 125
5. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) – 112

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 540
2. Red Bull – 282
3. Racing Point – 194 (after 15-point deduction)
4. McLaren – 184
5. Renault – 172

The absence of Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and a rapid circuit makes the Sakhir Grand Prix one of the most intriguing races of the season.

Hamilton has already wrapped up a seventh drivers' title and Mercedes were crowned constructors' champions even earlier, but the Briton's positive coronavirus test and the Outer Track at the Bahrain International Circuit offering sub-one-minute lap times means the stage is set for an enthralling event.

Valtteri Bottas was understandably touted as the favourite and he lived up to his billing by qualifying on pole on Saturday, but with the top 10 in Q3 separated by less than a second there is little room for error.

Lights out is scheduled for 20:10 local time (17:10 GMT) on Sunday.

WHAT HAPPENED IN QUALIFYING

Bottas avoided the ignominy of being outshone by temporary team-mate George Russell - standing in for Hamilton at Mercedes - with the fastest pole lap in F1 history, though there was just two 0.026 seconds between the pair.

Max Verstappen again took the title of the best of the rest to start from P3, while Charles Leclerc was an impressive fourth for Ferrari.

Alex Albon is running out of time to save his Red Bull seat and could only manage a disappointing 12th, while Russell's absence at Williams means Nicholas Latifi (17th) out-qualified his team-mate for the first time in his F1 career – debutant Jack Aitken (18th) was a tenth slower than the Canadian.

THE STARTING GRID

1. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), 2. George Russell (Mercedes)
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull), 4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
5. Sergio Perez (Racing Point), 6. Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri)
7. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault), 8. Carlos Sainz (McLaren)
9. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri), 10. Lance Stroll (Racing Point)
11. Esteban Ocon (Renault), 12. Alex Albon (Red Bull)
13. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), 14. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
15. Lando Norris (McLaren), 16. Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
17. Nicholas Latifi (Williams), 18. Jack Aitken (Williams)
19. Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo), 20. Pietro Fittipaldi (Haas)

SAKHIR TALKING POINTS

Mercedes development driver Russell has impressed so far this weekend and will be eager to score his first F1 win with the team he will be hoping to drive for permanently in the future.

The fact Bottas is on pole will not necessarily hamper him either; on the 15 previous occasions the Finn has started from the front of the grid he has triumphed just five times, failing at the three most recent attempts.

While the Mercedes duo will start on the medium compound, Verstappen will get away on softs as the teams head into the unknown in terms of tyre management, with the 3.5-kilometre track meaning the drivers will have to complete 87 laps.

Prior to that, though, Mick Schumacher - the son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher who will join Haas next season - will aim to sign off from Formula Two by securing the drivers' championship in the sprint race.

WHAT THE DRIVERS SAID

Valtteri Bottas (pole): "It didn't feel that easy to follow or pass so I'm really glad to be on the pole side and go from there. But hopefully we will see a fun race. It feels like a bit of a Mickey Mouse circuit, it's quite bumpy and twisty. Let's see. On a track like this you can't really make a difference, so the gaps are really small as you can see. I have to say George did a really good job. He was really building up to it and you could see the progress in qualifying. Really happy for us as a team that we can be one-two on the grid and it's another big achievement for us."

George Russell (2nd): "Obviously I've got nobody in front of me, which I've not experienced for a long, long time. It's going to be tricky. It's going to be really tricky. Qualifying is what I feel most comfortable with, it's balls out, everything you've got, and tomorrow you need a bit more control, a bit more finesse, and I just haven't had the experience yet. I'll give it my all and I'll see what I can do.

Max Verstappen (3rd): "Pole was on. After that first run I was two tenths behind so I knew it was going to be difficult but you always try to be as close as you can. At the end, to be within a tenth wasn't bad – but of course Valtteri didn't have a tow and didn't improve on his final lap. To be P3 is good for us I think on a track like this. I'm used to sitting in this chair. It might actually have my prints! I think at the end of this season, I'm going to take this seat home. It's very comfortable."

Charles Leclerc (4th): "I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do in the car, and I managed to do everything on my lap, so I'm extremely happy to be starting P4. Unfortunately by missing out FP2 I didn't do any race runs, so I'm going a bit into the unknown. But I'll give everything and see where we end up."

Alex Albon (12th): "It's all to play for though and we know overtaking is possible here plus we're running slightly more downforce than the others so hopefully we're better on our tyres. Our race pace looked pretty strong on Friday and we also have a free tyre choice so we'll have a long look at that and see what we can do. We just need to keep out of trouble at the start and then the plan is to fight through the field."

Sebastian Vettel (13th): "I generally had a good feeling driving the car so I don't really know what went wrong. Maybe on the straights I was losing a bit as well as in the middle sector. I was confident after Q1 but then we didn't make it. I don't know if this could be related to the power unit change. For sure my mechanics did everything well as the car was fine to drive. Taking care of the tyres will be difficult tomorrow but it could be the key to a good race. We will have a free choice of tyre for the start and we will see what we can do."

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 332
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 201
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 189
4. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) – 102
5. Sergio Perez (Racing Point) – 100

Constructors
1. Mercedes – 533
2. Red Bull – 274
3. McLaren – 171
4. Racing Point – 154 (after 15-point deduction)
5. Renault – 144

George Russell was "gutted" to miss out on pole position at the Sakhir Grand Prix by such a small margin but proud of his efforts after an "incredibly intense" two days.

The Williams driver is replacing world champion Lewis Hamilton, who has tested positive for coronavirus, this weekend.

Russell finished just 0.026 seconds behind Valtteri Bottas in qualifying on Saturday as Mercedes impressively locked out the front row with Max Verstappen just behind in third for Red Bull.

The 22-year-old expects to find it more difficult in Sunday's race as he adapts to making a frantic change of teams after the withdrawal of Hamilton, who has won the last five Formula One races.

"It has been incredibly intense," said Russell. "There has been so much to learn and get used to with the car, the seat – everything is so different. 

"The car felt alien to begin with. It is a really different way of driving. I had to unlearn what I learned at Williams and relearn how to drive this car fast.

"I tried a lot of things in FP3 and it didn't go well at all, so to be honest would have been happy with just making Q3 after final practice.

"So I am really pleased – pretty much got it all together on the final lap in Q3. Obviously gutted to miss out on pole by 20 milliseconds but If you told me last week I would get P2 I wouldn't have believed you.

"Valtteri has pushed Lewis a huge amount in qualifying over the years and we all know how great Lewis is. Statistically there has only been one tenth between them.

"To be right behind Valtteri, coming in last minute, two days of preparation, I am pleased. 

"I will have nobody in front of me [on my side of the grid] which I have not experienced for a long, long time. It is going to be really tricky. I feel most comfortable with qualifying, giving it everything you've got. 

"Sunday you need more control and finesse but I haven't had that experience yet, so we will see what I can do."

Bottas revealed he had tried to avoid distractions on a dramatic week in the Mercedes camp, with much talk about the pressure he is under to beat the team's developmental driver Russell, who is expected to secure a permanent drive in the future.

"It was a different situation to have a new team-mate, but I just wanted to focus [all my preparation] on my own doing, ot to waste energy anywhere else and I think I managed to do that," said the Finn.

"Strategy-wise we are in a great place as a team, it's good see George locking out the front row as well. 

"It is good to be on pole and I'm happy with that. Not one of my best qualifying sessions but happy it was enough. Now it is a bit of an unknown how the racing is going to be." 

Verstappen was himself just 0.056s behind Bottas in an incredibly close Q3 on a race weekend which is being held on a different, shorter track configuration to the one used for the Bahrain Grand Prix at the same venue last week.

"From our side we had a good qualifying," said the Dutchman. "It's a very short lap, not many corners. I always try and be as close as I can [to Mercedes] and it was a bit closer than normal.

"Sunday we are starting on different tyres [softs], it's gonna be quite interesting how it's gonna play out for us. We have nothing to lose."

Valtteri Bottas edged out new temporary team-mate George Russell as Mercedes impressively locked out the front row at the Sakhir Grand Prix despite the absence of Lewis Hamilton.

Williams driver Russell is standing in for seven-time world champion Hamilton, who has tested positive for coronavirus.

And after impressing in Friday's practice, Russell was strong again in qualifying on Saturday, pushing Bottas to the limit as the Finn claimed pole by a margin of just 0.026 seconds.

Max Verstappen was close behind in third, with Charles Leclerc taking a strong fourth place for Ferrari.

Racing Point's Sergio Perez will start fifth on the grid, while the second Red Bull of Alex Albon qualified down in 12th after missing out on a place in Q3.

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