Lewis Hamilton maintained his recent scintillating form to complete a practice double over Nico Rosberg at the season-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Hamilton, who needs Rosberg to finish outside the top three tomorrow to stand any chance of stopping his Mercedes team-mate from claiming what would be his maiden title, was the fastest of the two championship protagonists.
The Briton, a winner at the recent Brazilian Grand Prix following a masterclass in the torrid conditions – as well as at last month’s United States and Mexico double-header – finished the opening session 0.374 seconds ahead of Rosberg before edging the German out by 0.079 seconds later in the day.
There were two alarming moments for Hamilton. He emerged unscathed from an early spin in the opening 90-minute session and then feared he had a problem with his gearbox – a concern his Mercedes team dismissed as insignificant.
And while Hamilton knows that a fourth consecutive victory tomorrow will not on its own be enough to win the title, he will be pleased to have beaten his rival yesterday as he bids to heap the pressure on the championship leader.
Hamilton, 31, is reliant on outside help to win the title and seal what he is likely to regard as the finest achievement of his career.
But despite the Red Bulls boasting an impressive charge in the early session – with Max Verstappen, who drove so brilliantly in Brazil, and Daniel Ricciardo finishing third and fourth in the order – they slipped further behind the Mercedes pair yesterday evening.
Sebastian Vettel was third, one quarter of a second slower than Hamilton under the floodlights of the Yas Marina Circuit, but was stranded on the track in the closing stages after he stopped with a gearbox failure.
Jenson Button is approaching the final round of the season as if it were his last in the sport as he prepares to move sideways for McLaren’s highly-rated reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne next term.
The 2009 world champion, supported in the desert by his mum, elder sister and American model girlfriend Brittny Ward, finished 12th, one place behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso. Earlier, the 36-year-old’s time on track had been restricted to just ten laps after encountering a problem with the Energy Recovery System on his McLaren.
Jolyon Palmer, the British rookie who is set to complete his maiden campaign in the sport, was 15th in the order, while Jordan King, the son of former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King, who participated in opening practice for Manor, finished 21st, 4.7secs slower than Hamilton.
Felipe Massa, the Brazilian driver who is entering his 250th grand prix ahead of his impending retirement, clocked the tenth best time.
Meanwhile, McLaren’s new executive director Zak Brown has insisted the British team must return to winning ways in the near future. American businessman Brown was unveiled by McLaren on Monday following the recent ousting of Ron Dennis. McLaren are historically one of the sport’s most successful teams, but they have slipped down the pecking order in recent years, and have failed to win a race in more than four years.
“I am going to keep my mouth shut and not make any predictions but we need to get back to winning soon,” Brown said. “There have been a lot of people over the years that have tried to make predictions, and from what I have seen, nine out of ten have got it wrong.
“We are on a good path. Honda is producing a very good engine, and we have got a great team, so hopefully sooner rather than later.”