The final Friday of the 2017 Formula 1 season saw long time title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel head the way, and although Mercedes may hold a narrow advantage at the top of the pecking order in Yas Marina, there are perfect ingredients for a last-gasp Mercedes/Ferrari scrap in the desert.
Sebastian Vettel just about edged out Lewis Hamilton during the opening Formula 1 practice session under the heat of the deserts, however second practice saw Hamilton knock Vettel off top spot in terms of ultimate pace by a mere 0.149s.
Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel once again displayed — as they have for the majority of the season — that they are a step ahead of their rivals, despite running same machinery. Raikkonen and Bottas were 0.475s and 0.660s adrift of Hamilton’s Abu Dhabi lap record respectively, with Daniel Ricciardo getting a clear run to slot into third, and just 0.3s off Hamilton, after his spat with Grosjean over track position.
Whilst Red Bull’s outright qualifying pace may look encouraging, their parity with Ferrari and Mercedes is unlikely to remain come Saturday’s qualifying session under the floodlights, as the leading two’s engine modes will leave Red Bull with a lot to make up in the corners — especially given the available advantage of Yas Marina’s two long straights.
As the 2017 Formula 1 season comes to a close, engine life could form the pecking order come Saturday’s qualifying session and the season finale on Sunday. With drivers limited to just four power units for the entire season, some drivers will indeed be struggling for power unit life — and performance will surely need to be compensated.
Hamilton’s crash in Brazil will unquestionably give him the upper hand: a new-spec Mercedes engine which has done just 71 laps around Interlagos, as compared to his team-mate, who will run the old-spec Mercedes engine that has been bolted to his Mercedes since the Belgian Grand Prix in August.
Hamilton’s advantage means with Abu Dhabi being the final race, he could turn his engine up for a large part of the race on Sunday, and will unquestionably be maxed out through qualifying.
Friday’s simulations highlighted that Hamilton would be a clear favorite for pole position in Abu Dhabi, given his brand new engine that he can turn up to 11 come Q3, plus the Mercedes doesn’t look all to shabby through the lap – however, it’s worth noting that the Red Bull is second to none in the final, technical sector, which isn’t unexpected.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes: 1.37.877
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari: 1.38.026
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull: 1.38.180
Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: 1.38.352
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes: 1.38.537
Max Verstappen, Red Bull: 1.38.894
Apart from the lap-times, what would particularly be encouraging for Mercedes and Hamilton is the sector times; Hamilton gave away 0.1s to Vettel in the middle sector – which consist of two long straights and two chicanes. Mercedes are sure to be well ahead of Ferrari down the straight’s come qualifying – especially with Hamilton’s new power unit.
Moreover, from the traits of Mercedes through the 2017 season, it was expected to give away a lot of time in the final sector, however Hamilton made up most of the time on Vettel through that section – where Ferrari would be expected to make up time on the Mercedes; instead it was the other way.
From these indications, another Hamilton/Vettel front row, with another pole for Hamilton, would be no surprise.
As the top three tend to always be, the race pace rankings are encouraging of another thrilling Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, before Formula 1 packs up.
Sunday’s race is shaping up to be another one-stop strategy: drivers will start on the fast ultra-soft tyre, and switch to either the super soft or soft tyres between laps 20-31, as Friday’s running suggested an ultra/super soft strategy would be the fastest way to go, given the lack of tyre degradation.
Mercedes and Ferrari are very closely matched on the ultra-soft tyre, which they will start the Abu Dhabi GP on; Ferrari’s Raikkonen took responsibility of the ultra-soft runs, along with Bottas.
In terms of long runs on ultra-soft tyres, Bottas leads the way for the Mercedes Formula 1 team with a 1.42.754 over a five lap average, but his average is less than a tenth better than Raikkonen’s Ferrari – who has an average of seven laps, rather than the five for Bottas — which points to a slight advantage for the Ferrari.
Whilst it may be encouraging for Ferrari, it is worth noting Hamilton’s average is most likely to be quicker, given his new power unit installed and his relative pace advantage over his team-mate that he traditionally has – as the qualifying pace lap-times highlight.
This year, Ferrari are also known to find a lot of performance overnight – from the Friday to Saturday, as we saw in Brazil when Vettel was a couple of tenths adrift on the Friday to under a tenth off pole on Saturday.