Verstappen looked down and out throughout yesterday, having been outclassed in final practice and destroying a set of tyres in Q2, forcing him to use an extra set, but he turned the tables in the pole shootout to a steal a half-second march on Hamilton after their first laps.
The Briton had put in a conservative first lap, but his second was little better, getting him to within only 0.371 seconds, allowing Verstappen to abandon his final lap and still claim pole position.
Overtaking is difficult around Yas Marina Circuit, and every pole-sitter since 2015 has won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Verstappen and Hamilton are tied on points ahead of the final race of the season, with the Dutchman leading by dint of having won nine races to Hamilton’s eight.
“It is of course an amazing feeling,” Verstappen said. “We definitely improved the car again in qualifying, because so far this weekend has been on and off.
“I was very relaxed going into qualifying. I always do the best I can, and I know my team always give me the best possible car. We’ve been doing that all year, and again today that worked really well.”
But while history may allow Verstappen to sleep easy with pole in his pocket, his tyre choice for the start of the race might yet undo his good work.
Verstappen had intended to start the race on the medium tyre by using the versatile compound in Q2, but he locked up and flat-spotted his last set of mediums, forcing him to switch to the soft compound for the rest of the qualifying segment.
Hamilton had no trouble preserving his mediums, giving him more flexibility strategically.
“I’m still on the front row, and we’ve got the difference obviously between the tyres,” Hamilton said. “We’re in a good position, I’d like to think, with our tyres tomorrow.”
But the Briton had to admit that pole was unexpectedly out of reach for Mercedes.
“Max did a great lap today,” he said. “We couldn’t answer to that lap. That was a fantastic lap to him.”
Of further consolation to Hamilton is that Sergio Perez wasn’t able to put the sister Red Bull Racing car into third place, with an outstanding lap by Lando Norris slipping the Briton to the head of the second row.
Perez will therefore start fourth and directly behind Hamilton, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas fifth and sixth, the Finn probably too far out of reach of the leaders to play an influential role in the outcome of the race without a strong first stint.
Charles Leclerc was seventh in the second Ferrari ahead of Yuki Tsunoda, whose impressive final qualifying performance of the year could have been even stronger had his first lap, which would have been good enough for sixth, not been deleted for exceeding track limits exiting the final turn.
Esteban Ocon qualified ninth for Alpine ahead of Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren.
Fernando Alonso will start 11th, the Spaniard unlucky to miss out on the top 10 by just 0.012 seconds, while Pierre Gasly will join him on the sixth row for AlphaTauri.
Lance Stroll was 13th for Aston Martin ahead of the Formula E-bound Antonio Giovinazzi in 14th, while Sebastian Vettel completed the top 15.9
Nicholas Latifi outqualified outbound Williams teammate George Russell in their final race as a pair, beating the Briton by a little less than 0.1s, albeit with Russell frustrated by his team’s direction to tire preparation for qualifying.
Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, will start his final race from 18th on the grid after failing to replicate the pace of Alfa Romeo teammate Giovinazzi.
Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin will bring up the rear for Haas, the German 0.8s quicker than the Russian.