A week on from clinching his fourth World Championship and Sebastian Vettel has maintained his impressive momentum by setting the fastest time in Free Practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, ahead of Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton.
The Red Bull pair of Vettel and Webber have frequently found themselves at the top of the timesheets in FP2, which sends another alarming message to their competitors. Vettel’s advantage of 35/100ths of a second over Hamilton could once again elude to a lack of excitement for the race win, but some indicators today pointed to a closer challenge from Lotus and Mercedes.
They are more in touch than has been seen in recent races, putting themselves as contenders in both single-lap and race trim. The Lotus and Red Bull appear suited to the long middle sector that focuses on traction, whilst Hamilton was able to hustle his Mercedes through the street circuit-esque final sector.
This ought to make for an exciting Grand Prix, with strategy looking particularly interesting. One stop is manageable for most teams, but they must now work out if it’s the fastest way for them. The medium tyre, which will cover much of the race, offered consistency with only a small drop-off of around 1/10th per lap.
The soft tyre was used more heavily today as the teams evaluated how long they can go in to the race, a stint that is likely to last around eleven laps.
Kimi Raikkonen turned up at the Yas Marina Circuit shortly before FP1 this morning and took fourth place in this afternoon’s session on a mixed day for Lotus. Their pace is very strong, illustrated by Romain Grosjean topping FP1 and Raikkonen’s performance on the race simulation on the soft tyre late in the session which looked very fast. If he can qualify well, it will be very interesting to see where last year’s Abu Dhabi GP winner ends up. Raikkonen ran the short wheelbase car, while Grosjean stuck with the long wheelbase.
“Lotus is exceptionally quick, especially come Sunday, and may be able to pull off strong pace later on in the stint so we will have to keep an eye on them, ” said Vettel after the session.
“Mercedes are strong on one lap for tomorrow.”
But an issue with a broken brake disc on Grosjean’s car halted his chances of a serious soft tyre run this afternoon, leaving him in twelfth place.
With Mercedes and Lotus in good shape here, the pressure heaped upon Ferrari is increasing by the day. They currently sit between the aforementioned pair in the Constructors’ Championship, with a 24-point advantage over Lotus.
Eighth and tenth places for Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will see them out of touch of the teams ahead, and a one-stop race will take away Alonso’s opportunity to strategically climb through the field.
A surprise to the session was the pace of McLaren, Sergio Perez and Jenson Button taking sixth and seventh places respectively. Their middle sector is on par with that of Red Bull and they also have a notably high fastest speed. If they can maintain their performance over the rest of the weekend they will certainly be a nuisance to Ferrari.
The McLarens looked to be in reasonable shape once again, with Sergio Perez particularly quick in Sector 1, ending up in sixth place, one position lower than he finished last weekend’s Indian Grand Prix.
ABU DHABI GRAND PRIX, Abu Dhabi, Practice
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m41.335s 33
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m41.490s +0.155s 32
3. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m41.690s +0.355s 37
4. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m41.726s +0.391s 40
5. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m41.758s +0.423s 39
6. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m42.006s +0.671s 35
7. Jenson Button McLaren 1m42.010s +0.675s 30
8. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m42.171s +0.836s 30
9. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m42.324s +0.989s 40
10. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m42.440s +1.105s 35
11. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m42.509s +1.174s 37
12. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m42.607s +1.272s 18
13. Paul di Resta Force India 1m42.806s +1.471s 26
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m42.952s +1.617s 35
15. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m42.998s +1.663s 25
16. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m43.152s +1.817s 28
17. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m43.271s +1.936s 35
18. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m43.565s +2.230s 34
19. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m44.138s +2.803s 34
20. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m44.459s +3.124s 34
21. Charles Pic Caterham 1m44.525s +3.190s 37
22. Max Chilton Marussia 1m45.565s +4.230s 26