Abu Dhabi — Max Verstappen gained a potentially decisive advantage in his epic battle for the Formula One world title on Saturday by claiming pole for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Verstappen goes into the season-closing race level on points with Lewis Hamilton, who took second in qualifying to join the Red Bull driver on the front row.
Lando Norris was a surprise third to start on the second row alongside Verstappen's teammate Sergio Perez.
The last six winners in Abu Dhabi have all started from the front of the grid, with Verstappen victorious from pole last year.
Hamilton, seeking a historic eighth world title, was favourite to secure the final pole of 2021 after his Mercedes left Verstappen's Red Bull trailing in his wake in practice.
But after Red Bull's mechanics worked on Verstappen's car overnight, the Dutchman produced a blistering flying lap in Q3.
His time of 1min 22.109sec left Hamilton over half a second behind.
That forced the seven-time world champion back onto the heavily modified Yas Marina circuit for one last throw of the dice.
But although he reduced the gap to 0.371 at a venue where he is a five-time winner he could not knock his arch rival off the top of the grid.
"It's an amazing feeling, we definitely improved the car in quali," said Verstappen.
The 24-year-old added: "I'm incredibly happy with this. It's what we wanted but it was not easy with Mercedes' form. I'm looking forward to tomorrow, that's the most important."
With the two drivers locked together on 369.5 points after 21 of the 22 races the stakes could not be higher for the duelling duo.
Aside from pole Verstappen has another advantage over Hamilton.
Should the pair end up all square — (one finishes ninth, the other 10th with the fastest lap) — or fail to score any points then the title is his on the strength of his nine race wins to Hamilton's eight.