Formula 1’s title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen could not be more finely poised ahead of its showdown in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton have not only locked out the front row of the grid at the Yas Marina Circuit, but they are on different strategies as well.
Verstappen’s decision to get through Q2 on soft tyres, after flat-spotting a set of mediums, means that he will be starting from the front on the more aggressive compound.
Behind him, Hamilton and his Mercedes team have opted for the more conservative medium, which means he will be set on playing the long game in the race.
At a high-degradation circuit, Verstappen’s option could potentially have put him on the back foot. But previous history at Abu Dhabi shows it is not too much of a punishing venue on the tyres.
Indeed, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner says his team does not feel it is at a particular disadvantage with starting on the soft.
“We’re not overly upset starting on the softs,” he told Sky. “The medium is a bit more robust, but the deg in the race is going to be very interesting to see how that plays out. But track position, I also think regarding degradation, is crucial.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff sees things slightly differently though, as he reckons the soft tyre is not ideal. But equally, the situation is not especially clear cut.
“I hope to believe that starting on the soft is a disadvantage,” he said. “But it may not be. It may be you disappear into the distance with the soft in the first few laps and then you hold track position.
“But, on the other hand, there could be quite some degradation. So the truth is, I don’t know what the plan is and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. It’s two different strategies and then we will see what works.”
What the soft tyre should do is give Verstappen a better start from his pole slot than Hamilton – and that will then give him the free air he needs to exploit an early pace advantage from the rubber.
“You’re starting the clean side, you’re on a better tyre,” added Horner. “It’s just important to focus on our race, and we’re going to focus on ourselves and not worry about what they’re doing.”
What an early sprint for Verstappen could do is give him the gap he needs over Hamilton to even go for an aggressive two-stop strategy, where he tries to exploit any gain from fresher tyres.
In the past, Abu Dhabi has been a quite straightforward one stopper, due to the lengthy pitstop time, but the possibility is there this time around to try something different – especially with overtaking chances slightly improved thanks to track tweaks.
“I mean the two-stop is always a viable variant,” explained Wolff. “You think that you can attack going on a two-stop, or you can manage and try to make a one stop – which could be tricky at the end.
“I think we need to see. We saw some quite some deg on the soft in the long runs, less so on the medium, which makes it exciting in terms of the strategies. A one-stop looks good, and the two stop is definitely on also as a variant.”
What Mercedes will also need to bear in mind is that Hamilton could be exposed to an early attack from behind, with both third placed Lando Norris and fourth fastest Sergio Perez starting on softs.
If the pair manage to get the jump on Hamilton early on, thanks to their tyre advantage, it could hinder the pace of the Mercedes driver and give Verstappen a better chance to open up an advantage.