Lewis Hamilton moved to the top of the order in second practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after trading blows with Sebastian Vettel at the final round of the season.
Hamilton finished behind Vettel in the day’s first running at the Yas Marina circuit after the Ferrari driver picked up where he left off following his victory in Brazil a fortnight ago.
But it was world champion Hamilton’s turn to edge out Vettel in the evening session as he bids to end his title-winning campaign with a bang.
Under the floodlights, Hamilton clocked a best effort of one minute and 37.877 to finish clear of Vettel with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo third in the order.
“It’s been a good Friday, but I’m happy that it’s the last one of the season,” said Hamilton, who clinched his fourth championship in Mexico last month. “We got lots of laps in today and made good progress with the balance of the car.
“We have a bit of work to do, but I feel like we’re quite competitive here. It’s relatively close still, but I like that.”
Vettel – who needs to finish only eighth here in the desert to seal the runner-up spot in this year’s championship – and Hamilton have both won on three occasions in Abu Dhabi, and both started from pole position three times, too.
And on the basis of Friday’s evidence at least, the pair, who went toe-to-toe for the title only for Vettel’s challenge to implode in the second half of the campaign, look set to dominate here once more.
Hamilton finished 0.139 seconds ahead of Vettel with Ricciardo three tenths further back. Kimi Raikkonen was fourth for Ferrari ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen sixth. Bottas must record an unlikely victory on Sunday to stand any chance of beating Vettel to second spot in the championship.
Earlier, British driver George Russell, 19, was handed his second practice run-out in as many grands prix by Force India, and he finished 11th – 2.1 sec off Vettel and within one second of Sergio Perez in the sister car.
The Mercedes junior, who won the GP3 championship with a round to spare, is set to make the step up to Formula Two next season and is also in the running for the reserve drive with the British-based Force India team
Perez finished seventh in second practice ahead of team-mate Esteban Ocon, who returned to the Force India car after Russell took his place in the day’s first running.
Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault ahead of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. Felipe Massa, who will start the 269th and final race of his Formula One career on Sunday ahead of his impending retirement, finished 11th in the order.
Sebastian Vettel believes 2018 could be a successful year for Ferrari if they continue to make the same progress like they did this season.
The 30-year-old may have been beaten to the title by Lewis Hamilton but has warned the Scuderia will pose a bigger threat to their Mercedes rivals next season.
The German led the championship at the halfway stage in July but suffered setbacks in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan – paving the way for Hamilton to seal a fourth world title with two races remaining.
But the leap in performance Ferrari have made this year compared to their chastening experiences in 2016 has given Vettel, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and the rest of the Prancing Horse plenty of optimism for 2018.
“I think if we can do a similar step for next year and…don’t get me wrong, it’s a joke and Germans don’t like to joke so much, it should be a walk in the park,” Vettel said.
“What I want to say by that is the steps made this year have been incredible. The way the team came out with a competitive car at the beginning, the way we have improved both chassis, engine has been outstanding.
Vettel clinched five wins this campaign – as many as Ferrari claimed in the previous five seasons – highlighting their improvements made since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November.
With the final constructors’ championship not offering a true reflection on the tight battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, Vettel says the Italian marque can make further developments over the next 12 months.
“It has been close for most of the year but not close enough when it mattered. From that, we have made our conclusions, learned our lessons so that will help us next year,” he said.
“We are completely fired up. It has been bitter but I think it has been positive that we have had a couple of races [this year] to approach and look forward to next season.”
Vettel also suggested that a strong off-season for his team is key to their push of landing a first constructors’ championship since 2008.
He added: “That final step is always the hardest but the team is ready. We have some good things in the pipeline.”
Four-time champions Vettel and Hamilton have the stellar task of trying to catch Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five world titles.
“Certainly we will never match him in how successful he was in such a short space of time,” Vettel said. “Back then racing was different.
The cars were not that reliable and he still managed to be successful. (He was) the best we’ve ever had in terms of putting it all together and skill.”
With the pressure off Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Vettel – a three time winner at Yas Marina Circuit – has the chance to eclipse Hamilton and win the season-ending race for the fourth time.
“It is probably not the most sophisticated track – it is pretty wide – but that also means that there is more than one racing line,” Vettel, who won at Yas Marina in 2008, 2009 and 2013, said.
“It is not so easy to overtake and that means that you’d better qualify at the very front. And that is the plan. And then let’s see what it will be on Sunday.”
Lewis Hamilton aimed a jibe at Sebastian Vettel after the German joked his rival did not have to overtake anyone en route to winning his fourth world championship.
Hamilton, 32, arrives here in Abu Dhabi for the final round of the season hoping to see out the year in style after he beat Vettel to the title with three rounds to spare.
Hamilton and Vettel were locked in an intense battle for much of the year with the Yas Marina circuit expected to be the venue for this season’s championship decider.
But Vettel’s fight sensationally imploded during the second half of the campaign, while Hamilton roared to victory at five of the six grands prix following the summer break, to all but seal his fourth title.
Hamilton – a winner of nine races this year compared to Vettel’s six – can also boast to having passed Vettel twice this season – at May’s Spanish Grand Prix and in America last month – both of which led to the Mercedes driver winning the race. In stark contrast, Vettel has failed to make a move stick on his rival once.
Asked to recall his favourite pass of the season, Hamilton said: “I have a very bad memory, so I don’t remember much before last month’s race in Austin.”
Vettel, sitting to Hamilton’s right, interrupted. “There isn’t much to remember when you don’t have to pass that many people,” he said, implying that Hamilton’s super-quick Mercedes had helped to ease his path to championship glory.
Hamilton bit back. “I passed you a couple of times,” he replied. “They were the exciting ones. The closer races we had were the ones I enjoyed the most.”
In a playful press conference, Hamilton and Vettel also reflected on their biggest flashpoint of the season in Baku.
Vettel deliberately banged wheels with Hamilton after he wrongfully believed his rival had brake-tested him. The Ferrari driver was penalised during the race and later hauled in front of the FIA, with the governing body warning him over his future conduct.
Vettel joked: “I should get Move of the Year, Personality of the Year, and what was the last award? Fair play? OK, maybe not that one, but the first two for Baku.”
Vettel ended his four-month losing streak with victory in Brazil a fortnight ago as Hamilton recovered from last to fourth after he crashed out of qualifying.
But the Englishman, who was given a guard of honour by the throngs of Mercedes employees at the team’s Northamptonshire bases in Brackley and Brixworth earlier this week, has promised to go out with a bang in Abu Dhabi.
“We have this battle of wanting to get ahead of each other, so I am extremely driven this weekend to try and finish the season off as strongly as I have been in the second half of the year,” Hamilton added. “Sebastian won the last race and I don’t want to give him this one.
“So, I am hoping to have a good battle, and I am approaching this race and giving it everything as if I am still fighting for the championship.”