ABU DHABI: A relaxed Lewis Hamilton oozed confidence Friday after staying ahead of Mercedes team-mate and championship leader Nico Rosberg in both practice sessions for this weekend’s title-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The defending three-time world champion outpaced the title favorite by just 0.079 second in the afternoon’s day-into-night session, Hamilton clocking a best lap in one minute and 40.861 second at the Yas Marina circuit.
But Rosberg, who needs only to finish on the podium to clinch his maiden drivers’ title, was by no means discouraged as he continued his meticulous preparations.
“It’s been a great day,” said Hamilton.
“I’m really happy with the car and we’re in a good position for tomorrow. Pole is the goal.
“So that’s my absolute focus right now.”
Rosberg was left effusive in his language, but knew he had found the pace and performance he needed to become only the second driver, after Briton Damon Hill in 1996, to join his father as a Formula One world champion.
“A decent start to the weekend,” he said.
“Straight away, the car started off with a balance that was in the right area. It’s always interesting going from hot conditions to cooler ones, between the afternoon and evening sessions.”
Both men set their best times on ultra-soft tires in a session that was completed after dusk and under floodlights with slower long runs in dry, hot and dusty conditions.
Hamilton, who has won the last three races, was fastest in the morning practice session while Rosberg appeared to taking a marginally more cautious approach.
Ramilton, who is 12 points adrift ahead of the final leg of the 21-race season, must win and hope that Rosberg finishes outside the top three.
Sebastian Vettel was third fastest for Ferrari, two-tenths down, despite suffering a gearbox failure late in the session, ahead of Dutch teenager Max Verstappen in the leading Red Bull.
Vettel said he was confident of challenging at the front in the race.
“I think it was a better Friday for us,” he said. “Actually, it was a very good Friday.
“Hopefully we’ll have a similar feeling in qualifying and put the car where it belongs.”
Both are tipped as having the potential speed and race performance to stop a Mercedes one-two and thereby upsetting the outcome of the championship.
Verstappen ended the session also suffering car problems.
“I can’t do a long run like this,” he said, after grumbling about a lack of engine power. “There’s nothing out of the corner and it feels like a handbrake into the corner.”
Daniel Ricciardo was fifth in the second Red Bull ahead of Finns Kimi Raikkonen, in the second Ferrari, and Valtteri Bottas of Williams.
Despite the half-second gap to Hamilton, Ricciardo said he remained confident that the Red Bulls can fight Mercedes’ title-duelists.
“I think we can find that little bit for tomorrow and it will be a good fight for third place — Mercedes are ahead, but not miles ahead. I think maybe we can still race them on Sunday, which is nice.”
Sergio Perez of Force India was eighth ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, in his final outing for Force India before joining Renault, and retirement-bound Felipe Massa in the second Williams.
The twilight session started in high temperatures and soon saw Vettel setting the pace before Rosberg and then Hamilton took the initiative.
Hamilton was late out to join the fray after lengthy set-up changes were made to his car.
Romain Grosjean was forced out of the action early on due to a water pump failure and Verstappen complained of tire wear problems before Vettel pulled up and parked his car.
Tire degradation was one of the key areas of focus for all the teams and is expected to be a major factor in Sunday’s race.