Abu Dhabi: Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton took his first step towards a record-setting fourth title here as he topped the times ahead of arch-rival Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel while bettering the existing lap record during the practice sessions of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix on Friday.
Pushed down into second by Vettel during the first sessions, Hamilton came all guns blazing with an hour still to go in the evening session to be timed at 1 minute, 37.877 seconds to smash the existing lap time of 1:40.279 set by Vettel during the inaugural edition of the race in 2009.
Vettel tried to match the exploits of the four-time world champion, who incidentally is looking to win a record-making fourth title in Abu Dhabi this week. But the closest the German could come was with a 1:38.026 for second best. Thirteen of the 20 drivers on the grid managing to better the existing lap record mark, it was Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo taking the third best time of 1:38.180.
Led by Vettel, another four drivers finished in the 1:38s mark, but none could come anywhere close to the standard set by four-time champion Hamilton. Another six ended with times in the 1:39s.
The precursor of things to come was seen within the opening five minutes of the afternoon practice session, with cars showing a better speed than any other year. Hamilton opened early to head ahead of his challengers with a quick one minute and 41.664 seconds that bettered his fastest time of 1:42.869 set in the corresponding session last year.
Hamilton had won 11 races in 2014, in the championship battle with Rosberg, decided in the final race of the season, where the British driver secured his second World Championship title by winning the race.
With the Mercedes proving reliable yet again, Hamilton retained his position at the top with a 1:39.126 minutes midway through the 90-minute session. But the three-time winner here soon saw a handful of drivers pressure his best time led by teammate Valterri Bottas (1:39.741) and followed by the Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen (1:39.841) and Sebastian Vettel (1:40.192).
Things got better as the session progressed with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen temporarily going clear, only to see Vettel come out all guns blazing to record the fastest lap of 1:39.006 minutes leaving Hamilton in second (1:39.126) and Verstappen in third (1:39.154).
Things changed drastically during the second practice as drivers and cars held out more on the cooler surface. Hamilton was in raging form powering his way to the top with a well-time 1:38.912 leaving Vettel and Ricciardo in the next two positions.
Going into this year’s season-finale, Hamilton has won nine races. Should he clinch his fourth title in Abu Dhabi, the 32-year-old Briton will become the only driver to do this so far in the nine editions of this race.
Hamilton had won 11 races in 2014, in a closely fought championship battle with teammate Nico Rosberg, decided in the final race of the season, where the British driver secured his second World Championship title by winning the race. After finishing runner-up to Nico Rosberg in 2016, he won his fourth title this season, joining Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel as drivers with four or more World Championship titles.
On Saturday, there will be a third one-hour practice session from 2pm, after which the qualifying session will be held between 5pm and 6pm to determine who will start from pole position for Sunday’s ninth running of the race.
1. Lewis Hamilton (1:37.877)
2. Sebastian Vettel (1:38.026)
3. Daniel Ricciardo (1:38.180)
4. Kimi Raikkonen (1:38.352)
5. Valtteri Bottas (1:38.537)
6. Max Verstappen (1:38.894)
7. Sergio Perez (1:39.323)
8. Esteban Ocon (1:39.333)
9. Nico Hulkenberg (1:39.529)
10. Fernando Alonso (1:39.559)