Anyone hoping for a repeat of the unpredictable São Paulo Grand Prix ought to reset their expectations.
With a regular grand prix weekend format at a well-manicured circuit with stable and predictable weather, Red Bull Racing was back at its best ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in both single lap pace and during the race simulations at the end of second practice.
Max Verstappen, despite missing first practice to give rookie Liam Lawson a run, was right on the pace from the moment he jumped in the car for the twilight session, sweeping from minds the memory of Mercedes’s one-two finish in first practice — and the team’s strong result one week ago in Brazil.
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It’s regular programming resumed for the final round of the season — albeit with some caveats.
There’s always a strong potential for turnaround in Abu Dhabi between Friday and Saturday given the timing of the sessions.
FP1 is used only for basic set-up given it’s run during daylight. All the hard work is crammed into FP2, which is run at dusk, the same time as the race.
Sunset has a significant effect on track conditions, which cools by 10°C or more as the light fades.
That means big changes are saved for overnight Friday, and we won’t really see their effects until qualifying or even the race given FP3 on Saturday is also run during the daytime.
So while Verstappen has the upper hand heading into Saturday, Mercedes is still more optimistic about its chances than the time sheet suggests. Even Ferrari, which looks well off the pace, isn’t panicking just yet.
RED BULL RACING DOMINANT BUT MERCEDES WITHIN SPITTING DISTANCE
If Verstappen’s been perturbed by controversy in Brazil, he’s clearly not showing it. His all-round strong performance in his single hour of track time has put him on a course for a comfortable victory.
“I’m really happy with how that session went, I think the car came together well,” Verstappen said. “Of course we’ll always try to refine a few things overnight, but we should be competitive in quali and the race.”
Single-lap pace (soft tyre)
Red Bull Racing: 1:25.146 (Verstappen)
Mercedes: 1:25.487 (Mercedes)
Ferrari: 1:25.599 (Leclerc)
Verstappen enjoyed a comfortable gap on single-lap pace, but that was in part due to Mercedes and Ferrari analysing different set-up options for the race. These gaps will likely reduce by the time qualifying rolls around.
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Long-run averages (medium tyre)
Red Bull Racing: 1:30.477 (6 laps)
Mercedes: 1:30.937 (4 laps)
Ferrari: 1:31.231 (6 laps)
Mercedes struggled with balance as the sun set and the track cooled, which should be a relatively easy gain overnight.
The German marque switched between a high-downforce configuration to a lower downforce setting on Lewis Hamilton’s car, which is why the Briton was more than 0.6 seconds off the pace. While it minimised his losses to Verstappen down the straight — long a problem for Mercedes — it cost him too much time through a nervous rear axle through the final sector in particular.
“In FP2 the car balance was a bit off following some set-up changes between the sessions, so we will need to make some updates overnight, but otherwise we’re relatively competitive,” Hamilton said.
Russell, on the other hand, believed there was more to come from running more wing.
“I’d like to think we’ll be able to fight for the top three in qualifying tomorrow and see where that can take us on Sunday,” he said.
FERRARI WITH WORK TO DO
Ferrari was also playing with set-up, switching from high downforce to low downforce in FP2, but that brought with it a sharp increase in tyre degradation, already a long-running problem with the SF-75.
Neither driver wanted anything to do with the soft for race simulations, but even on the medium tyre the pace was unsustainable.
“Why are we so slow?” Leclerc radioed his team candidly during his long-run simulation as his lap spiralled away.
“Our pace is not great at the moment,” came the reply. Not helpful but certainly illuminating.
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Tyre wear was an interesting talking point on Friday. Abu Dhabi is normally thought of as a very easygoing circuit, but degradation was higher than expected for most teams. The race appears to be poised between one and two stops, with the medium and soft compounds the backbone.
While Leclerc was close to Russell on qualifying pace, it may be for nothing if the Monegasque can’t sustain a faster strategy in the race.
That would also be the case in Leclerc’s battle with Perez for second in the drivers standings. While Perez was well off Verstappen’s pace in FP2, there’s clearly more performance in the RB18 in qualifying and race trim than can be mustered by the Ferrari.
As it stand he’s facing an uphill battle for the runner-up finish.
Sainz was at least optimistic that there were easy gains to be made on Saturday.
“The feeling on track wasn’t too bad but I know we’ve got plenty of margin to improve tomorrow,” he said.
THE MIDFIELD LOOKS UNPREDICTABLE
Every place bar first and last in the constructors championship is still live, but there were precious few pointers in the practice data.
Alpine was the only team that really looked confident. It’s been at the head of the midfield almost all year, and it was again the quickest car here.
Long-run averages (medium tyre)
Alpine: 1:31.584 (6 laps)
AlphaTauri: 1:31.595 (3 laps)
Aston Martin: 1:31.925 (5 laps)
Williams: 1:32.299 (5 laps)
Alfa Romeo: 1:32.359 (5 laps)
Haas: 1:32.857 (8 laps)
(McLaren: 1:31.761 (6 laps, soft tyre))
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AlphaTauri looks close, but Pierre Gasly’s three-lap run on softs was unrepresentatively short, and even the Frenchman admitted his team is “still quite far off [the midfield] pace”.
McLaren is an unknown quantity, however, in its unlikely battle to outscore Alpine by 20 points.
The team had to compromise FP2 after Daniel Ricciardo’s car was retired early with an oil leak, but both drivers were optimistic of the car’s potential.
“Just a few more things to find for tomorrow, but I think we’re in a good spot,” Ricciardo said, while Norris reckoned there was some low-hanging fruit to be picked tomorrow due to him having sat out FP1 for Pato O’Ward.
Given a one-stop strategy will likely run soft-medium, McLaren’s strong soft run is promising.
Valtteri Bottas was in the top 10 in both practice sessions, and both he and teammate Zhou Guanyu were happy with the car’s single-lap potential. Neither had particularly impressive race pace, however, even after experimenting with the hard tyre.
At this stage, in the battle for sixth, Aston Martin might fancy its chances to pick up the six points against Alfa Romeo to take the place.
DOOHAN BACK IN THE CAR BUT SARGEANT UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
First practice was dominated by rookie and reserve drivers, with eight stand-ins making an appearance to either satisfy the FIA’s rookie running rules or to look ahead to 2023.
Jack Doohan made his second grand prix weekend appearance after a truncated outing in Mexico with an engine problem. The Aussie suffered technical problems again with an overheating motor, though it wasn’t enough to curtail his lap count. He clocked 25 toured and ended up second-last, around 0.6 seconds slower than Esteban Ocon in the same car.
“It was great to have Jack back in the car for the first session,” Alpine chassis technical director Matt Harman said. “He did a great job on two sets of soft tyres, and we look forward to seeing him behind the wheel again on Tuesday [for the post-season test].”
But it was his F2 contemporary Logan Sargeant who was most under the spotlight in the opening hour of practice.
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The American was undertaking his fourth practice session of the year with Williams in a bid to increase his superlicence points tally and qualify for the drive.
He needed 100 kilometres of track time to score his bonus point, which he almost threw away with a rear lockup and spin at turn 1. Luckily he stopped the car centimetres from the barrier and was able to return it undamaged.
The trickier task for him — and for Doohan as well as Liam Lawson and Felipe Drugovich, the other F2 drivers taking part in the practice session — was to then start Formula 2 qualifying just 30 minutes later.
Having collected his practice points — and assuming he doesn’t pick up a penalty in either of this weekend’s races — Sargeant must finish no lower than sixth in the championship to get his superlicence.
He’s currently third, but only 12 points separate him from Lawson, who’s in seventh.
He qualified an admirable sixth — one place behind Doohan, who’s fourth in the standings, and ahead of Lawson, who qualified ninth.
However, F2’s Saturday sprint is run with a reverse-grid top 10, meaning Lawson wills tart on the front row and Sargeant back in fifth.
It’s a gold chance for Lawson to dramatically reduce the gap between Sargeant and the danger-zone seventh in the standings, with victory worth 10 points.
The sprint gets underway at 11:20pm (AEDT) before F1 qualifying.
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
The season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on Kayo and Fox Sports.
Final practice starts at 9:30pm (AEDT) tonight ahead of qualifying at 1am on Sunday.
The pre-race show started at 10:30pm on Sunday before lights out at midnight.