Lewis Hamilton is braced to put his body on the line after revealing he is short of 100 per cent fitness on his Formula One comeback in Abu Dhabi.
The seven-time world champion missed the only race of his 14-season F1 career at the Sakhir Grand Prix last weekend with coronavirus.
Hamilton was bed-ridden in Bahrain quarantine for a week as he fought the virus and lost more than a kilogram in weight.
But after returning a series of negative tests, Hamilton was given the green light to return to the cockpit of his world championship winning machine for the concluding round of the season.
The 35-year-old will line up from third on the grid after Max Verstappen claimed the first non-Mercedes pole of the year in dry conditions. The Red Bull driver edged out Valtteri Bottas by 0.025 seconds, with Hamilton 0.086 sec off the Dutchman’s pace.
British driver Lando Norris dazzled under the lights of the Yas Marina circuit to finish fourth for McLaren.
“I don’t want to go into too much detail of the experience,” said a noticeably slimmer Hamilton, who coughed on several occasions during his post-qualifying media duties.
“I really feel for those who have suffered from Covid-19, those who have lost loved ones from it, and I can understand how, because it is a nasty virus.
“I am not at 100 per cent. I still have some feeling within my lungs. It is overall energy. One of the symptoms is that it really drains you, and I am trying to sleep as much as I can.
“Recharging is not as easy as it has been in the past. I have lost a good, good amount of weight, just in that week.
“But I would drive even if one of my arms was hanging off – that is what we do as racing drivers.
“It definitely will not be the easiest of races physically tomorrow, but I will manage it and give it everything I have got.”
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, said: “A race driver is obviously keen on returning to the car even if he is not 100 per cent.
“It is expected that after 10 days with Covid-19, you are not going to be on your A-game, but he is absolutely good enough to race.
“He has tested negative and sometimes, drivers are not perfectly well but they still race and this is the situation with Lewis.”
F1 is gearing up for the final act of a breathless coronavirus–disturbed calendar of 17 races inside just 24 weeks.
Hamilton wrapped up his record-equalling title in Turkey last month. The Mercedes driver faces 55 laps of this 3.45-mile track, made up of 21 corners, to capture his 12th win of 2020.
However, he will start on the backfoot after Verstappen delivered an imperious lap, befitting of his impressive campaign, to capture the third pole of his career. The last five winners of this race have started from the front, too.
Hamilton’s Sakhir GP stand-in George Russell, who was denied victory twice on his Mercedes debut, was brought back down to earth with a thud in Abu Dhabi after he qualified only 18th.
Russell missed out on pole in Bahrain by just 0.026 seconds seven days ago. Here, and back at Williams – the British team whom are on course to end another season without scoring a point – Russell was almost three seconds off Verstappen’s pole lap.
Sergio Perez, who took advantage of Russell’s misfortune to claim the first win of his career last Sunday, finished 15th. But he will be thrown to the back of the field for an engine penalty on his final drive for Racing Point.
Perez will be replaced by Sebastian Vettel at the team, rebranded as Aston Martin in 2021.
In the last one-lap appearance of his six-season Ferrari career, the quadruple world champion finished 13th, seven tenths slower than Charles Leclerc. Leclerc finished ninth but will serve a three-place grid penalty for his collision with Perez on the opening lap last time out.
Vettel has endured a torrid year with the Scuderia and he heads for his last dance in red 13th in the championship – an eye-watering 299 points behind Hamilton and 65 points adrift of Leclerc.