Lewis Hamilton seemed to land the first blow against Max Verstappen in the pursuit of the 2021 Formula One Drivers’ Championship on Friday at Yas Marina Circuit.
The drivers got their first taste of the enhanced track in the UAE capital as they took part in the first two practice sessions ahead of Sunday’s title showdown between the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, who are neck and neck in the points standings.
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With all to play for on Sunday, everyone was taking it a bit easy during the afternoon section in the Abu Dhabi sunshine, but the shackles were off as the sun set as the timing of FP2 would reflect that of both qualifying and the race itself.
Hamilton kept up the momentum of the past few weeks to assert a slight advantage over Verstappen as the sparks flew off the newly laid Yas Marina track. He was comfortably faster when the chips were down, as he romped one of his favourite hunting grounds in 1:23.691 — the only driver to drop below the 1:24 mark — with his rival only clocking the fourth fastest time.
“It doesn’t feel too bad,” said the 36-year-old Briton. “We made some changes in the second session.”
Like every other driver and team, there is along night ahead working out telemeteries and racing lines over a new track on a pivotal day on Sunday. “Now we just have to crank through the data and try to figure out how we can improve, where we home in,” Hamilton added. “The target is always moving, but yes. Otherwise, I feel good.”
Hamilton and Verstappen have already collided three times this season, raising concerns that a thrilling title battle might end in a crash.
But the governing FIA has warned drivers of severe consequences, such as a points deduction, for unsportsmanlike behaviour.
In the evening session, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon snuck in for a surprise second on the sheets, but was still 0.343 seconds adrift of Hamilton. Valtteri Bottas — who is bidding farewell to Mercedes to make way for George Russell nest season, kept up his impressive bow with third ahead of Verstappen.
There were concerns as Kimi Raikkonen crashed in the dying minutes of the second session, but — to the cheers of the crowd — the legend walking away unharmed in his final weekend in the sport before retirement.
The Finn lost control of his Alfa Romeo at the left-handed Turn 14 and spun into the barriers, calling an early end to the second session, leaving his Alfa Romeo team with a lot of repair work to do overnight ahead of qualifying.
Sergio Perez was fifth in the other Red Bull ahead of Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda in his AlphaTauri. Charles Leclerc was eighth ahead of Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz. Frenchman Pierre Gasly in the other AlphaTauri rounded out the top 10.
It was looking rosier for Verstappen earlier, as he topped the time sheets in the inaugural first practice session of the new-look Yas Marina Circuit as drivers sized up the newly reconfigured track.
On the shorter 5.28km circuit, Red Bull’s Dutchman set the pace early on with the fastest lap of 1:25:009, ahead of title rival Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. But it was all change in the evening as Mercedes showed their pace in the flying laps.