Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton made a strong early statement in the Formula One world championship battle with team-mate Nico Rosberg, finishing fastest in both practice sessions on Friday at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
After topping the standings in FP1, Hamilton had a slender edge on the ultrasoft compound in the afternoon, too. His time of one minute, 40.861 seconds put him just ahead of Rosberg. Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel showed his class with a strong lap, finishing FP2 in third, but his session ended early due to what's believed to be a gearbox problem.
In the morning, Hamilton posted a time of 1:42.869 on soft tyres to come home ahead of Rosberg, who was more than three-tenths slower. Red Bull's Max Verstappen was the best of the rest in third.
The Mercedes pair will fight it out for the world title on Sunday in what's set to be a dramatic finale to the season. Rosberg will clinch the crown if he finishes on the podium, while Hamilton, 12 points behind, must win and hope his rival finishes outside the top three.
Here are the standings from the day's practice sessions and a closer look at the key opening exchanges in what’s set to be one of the most memorable weekends in the sport for many years.
Here are the final standings from FP2 as Hamilton set the pace in his Mercedes, per the F1 Twitter feed:
As was the case early in the day, Rosberg was the first Mercedes man to set a time and surged to the head of the pack with a mark of 1:40.940.
However, it was a while until Hamilton was seen in action. Indeed, the champion was far from happy with the balance of his car, and for much of the early stages of the session, his Mercedes was in the garage with the front wing off.
“Need to rebalance these wheels,” the Briton told his race engineer, per BBC Sport. “They've got flat spots all over them.”
While Hamilton was initially frustrated, he was reminded to refrain from any colourful language:
Eventually, when things were aligned for Hamilton, he was able to better Rosberg’s mark by eight hundredths of a second on the ultrasoft compound.
Perhaps encouragingly for Hamilton with Sunday’s title showdown in mind, there wasn’t too much to split the Mercedes pair from the rest of the top teams.
Vettel certainly showed the capabilities of the Ferrari with a fine lap, finishing just 0.269 seconds back on Hamilton. The Red Bull duo of Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were both just over half-a-second behind the champion; remarkably, the former was faster than the latter by just one thousandth of a second in FP3.
After that flurry of pace mid-session, the drivers turned their attentions to the longer runs later on. The Mercedes pair, as expected, were posting similar lap times, while Williams’ Valtteri Bottas offered an insight into the potential shelf life of the ultras, as his speed deteriorated after 11 laps.
Verstappen also expressed some concerns about the tyre compound after 10 laps. “I'm destroying my front right tyre again,” he complained on the radio, per BBC Sport.
The long runs were disrupted late on in the session, though, as Vettel’s promising FP2 ended in disappointing fashion. He pulled up with just 10 minutes to go and expressed concerns about the gearbox over the team radio.
Here is how things finished up as the drivers took to the Yas Marina circuit for the first time this weekend, per the Renault Twitter feed:
Rosberg initially posted the quickest time of the two Mercedes men, although Hamilton settled into his groove not long after to usurp his rival.
As Hamilton sought to explore the limitations of the Abu Dhabi circuit, he did make some errors. One of those resulted in a spin, as we can see per the F1 Twitter feed:
When both men switched onto the softer compound, Hamilton improved again, moving more than three tenths clear of the world championship leader. It was a mark Rosberg was unable to get close to, with early indications suggesting the in-form Briton may have the edge over his team-mate.
Following on from his stunning performance in Brazil last time out, Verstappen also showed encouraging pace in his first outing on track.
The teenager excelled in the wet weather at Interlagos and looks poised to play a big role in the shakeup on Sunday, securing the third-fastest time of the morning. Team-mate Ricciardo was back in fourth spot, with Vettel down in fifth.
Aside from the Mercedes men, this weekend is also an important one for McLaren driver Jenson Button, who will call time on his glittering career in the sport following Sunday’s race.
Ahead of first practice the British driver posted the following snap of his helmet on Instagram; it’s in the same style as the one he donned when he won the world title while driving for Brawn GP in 2009:
It wasn’t the best start to the weekend for the veteran driver, however, as his McLaren was in the garage for much of the session and he finished in 20th spot.
Meanwhile, the Renault team seemed to be enjoying themselves during first practice:
Force India were one of the most impressive teams in the morning, suggesting they could be in the hunt for the top spots this weekend. Sergio Perez finished up in sixth, while development driver Alfonso Celis performed admirably to go 11th.