Lewis Hamilton has suggested that Max Verstappen deliberately locked up during the second phase of qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, before switching from the Medium to the Soft compound tyre.
Verstappen and Hamilton both ran Medium tyres in the early stages of Q2 at the Yas Marina Circuit, but Verstappen locked up at the start of a flying lap and returned to the pits to ditch his compromised rubber.
While Hamilton continued on Mediums, Verstappen came back out on a set of Softs to secure his place in the pole position shootout, where he comfortably came out on top.
It means that Hamilton will start the race on the more durable Medium tyres, while Verstappen lines up on Softs.
"Nobody locks up at Turn 1"
Speaking after qualifying, Hamilton admitted that Red Bull were out of reach and pondered whether Verstappen's mistake might have been deliberate, as the rivals prepare for their championship showdown.
"Jeez, they were so quick today," Hamilton said of Verstappen and Red Bull.
"In that last run, we couldn't match them. They did a great job. It was looking really, really strong up until then, through all of practice.
"I'm not necessarily surprised, because if you think about the last race, he [Verstappen] was four-tenths up on that one lap [in qualifying].
"They have a very, very fast car. When it comes together, they'll be ahead."
Hamilton continued: "[It's] interesting that they locked up at Turn 1 and all that kind of stuff.
"I'm a conspiracist, no one locks up at Turn 1, and if you do, it's not a big lock-up.
"They obviously deliberately chose to go onto the Softs, in my opinion - I might be wrong. But I hope what we're on is the right one."
Verstappen responds to the suggestion
Verstappen was quick to shut down the suggestion during his own post-session interviews, insisting that it was a genuine mistake.
"No, of course you never do that. It was certainly not on purpose," he told media, including RacingNews365.com.
"I braked and tried to do another lap on the Medium tyre, but it locked and I had to go in."
Despite the situation, Red Bull chiefs Helmut Marko and Christian Horner have no concerns about Verstappen's strategy, explaining that the decision over whether to start on Mediums or Softs had been "50/50" before qualifying.
Hamilton's long night at the track
Hamilton, though, hopes his strategy will pay off as the race unfolds, even though he is wary of the race pace Red Bull displayed in practice.
"Their long-run pace was very, very strong, so keeping up with [Verstappen] will not be easy," added Hamilton.
"But if they have the deg that we think the Soft can have, then we might be in a good place.
"Tonight I'll be here [at the track], I'll be studying, I'll be looking at past videos and just preparing in the best way, so when I come here tomorrow I'm already clued up on all the strategy and everything that I need to do."
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