Dubai: Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas had a point to prove as he showed he can top the table in Formula One as he edged returning world champion and teammate times in Friday’s hectic second free practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Finn, who was left embarrassed by the superior pace of Hamilton’s coronavirus-enforced stand-in George Russell, ‘borrowed’ from Williams, at last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix, reacted with a determined showing at Yas Marina Circuit.
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A happy Hamilton said he was 'super-excited' to be back in action. The seven-time champion, who missed last weekend's action-packed Sakhir Grand Prix due to a bout of COVID-19, admitted he needed a few laps to settle in again.
"I was very happy and grateful to be back out there and to finish the season feeling strong," he said. "I felt super-excited like it was my first day back at school. It took a while in the first session to get used to it again, but the second was better so not too bad overall... We got most of our stuff done."
He added that it had been a "bit of a messy day with a lot going on, but we came through it like we always do."
Asked about his reaction to seeing fellow-Briton Russell in his car last weekend, Hamilton said he had been impressed. "I think George did an amazing job as everyone knows," he said. "He was at home in the car. For me, it was definitely odd because I've never missed a race in my 27 years of racing. One day, I'll write a book about it, but for now I'll leave it at that."
He said he felt no need to impress this weekend, but wanted to enjoy the season-closing event.
"I don't think I need to do any more than I have done this year," he said. "I don't think that is important at all - I just want to enjoy it, and be here, and be with my team again. It's a privilege."
Bottas clocked a best lap in 1:36.27 to outpace Hamilton, back after the bout of COVID-19 that forced him to miss an F1 race for the first time, by 0.203 seconds. For Bottas, it was a return to his familiar role as ‘fastest on Friday’.
Max Verstappen was third for Red Bull, seven-tenths adrift, at the end of a session that began and finished with tyre-testing and was also interrupted by a red-flag period after Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo’s Ferrari engine burst into flames.
His under-pressure Red Bull teammate Alex Albon was fourth ahead of Lando Norris of McLaren, Renault’s Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez of Racing Point and Charles Leclerc of Ferrari.
Daniel Ricciardo was ninth for Renault ahead of Lance Stroll in the second Racing Point while Russell, last weekend’s ‘heartbreak hero’, ended the session in the Williams pit after power problems.
After warm, dry and sunlit day, the second ‘twilight’ session began in similar conditions as the sun went down, the drivers ventured out to test Pirelli’s latest prototype tyres on which everyone had to complete eight timed laps.
Initially, the two Mercedes men were fastest by a full second before Hamilton was called in for a steering wheel swap. The testing over, he resumed on mediums and went top in 1:36.479. Bottas then beat him by two-tenths.
When they switched to softs, Hamilton’s first flying lap — in 1:36.097 — was deleted for running wide at Turn 21. Bottas’ lap ended prematurely with a twitchy exit from Turn One where Gasly spun.
With 38 minutes remaining, it was teams in order with the two Mercedes ahead of the two Red Bulls and Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who will start Sunday’s race from the back of the grid after collecting a penalty for taking a new engine.
Haas’s Kevin Magnussen joined Formula One’s latest race winner with a penalty after fitting a new electronics package.
At the sharp end, Verstappen showed his pace with the fastest first sector time before backing off when he caught Perez on a long run. His next lap was deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 21. He stayed third, one-tenth down on the ‘black arrows’.
In the closing minutes, two cars betrayed the age of their engines with George Russell’s power-unit issuing smoke and then Kimi Raikkonen’s bursting into flames.
The Briton managed to nurse his Williams to the pits, but the 41-year-old Finn pulled up at Turn Seven where he took a marshal’s extinguisher to put out the fire.
The session was red flagged with 17 minutes remaining. After ten, the action resumed with Hamilton recovering from loss of gears in the pit-lane to restart and rejoin for a final fling.