- Finn tops practice, eclipses world champion Hamilton
Valtteri Bottas topped the day’s free practice times for Mercedes as Yas Marina Circuit’s 10th Grand Prix got under way on Friday.
The Finn’s best lap of 1 minute 37.236 seconds, set in the second 90-minute practice session, threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the 20-car field ahead of Saturday’s crucial qualifying session.
That includes teammate and five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished the second session in fourth place.
Bottas, let off the leash here last year after Hamilton’s fourth title success, took pole and won the race – and today’s form suggests history may be about to repeat itself. In first practice he was third-quickest ahead of Hamilton, while he was two-tenths faster than his teammate in the second session.
Lewis spent much of the first session on the radio to his crew, saying at one stage, ‘It’s quite an unhappy car at the moment.’
Mercedes as a team were responding to a splendid opening practice session for Red Bull who had Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo in first and second places, the Dutchman setting the pace with a 1:38.491.
Verstappen and Ricciardo were sandwiched between them, with Max providing one of the talking-points when his recent enmity with Racing Point Force India continued.
Last time out, the Dutchman got physical with Esteban Ocon in Brazil after they clashed when Verstappen was leading that race; here it was Sergio Pérez’s RPFI car that nearly got up close and personal with Verstappen’s Red Bull in pit lane, prompting a radio call to complain of an unsafe release.
F1®’s ‘Big Three’ filled the top six places, with the Ferraris of Kimi Räikkönen fifth and sixth. But while Bottas had the one-lap pace in the early part of FP2, it was Ricciardo’s Red Bull that set the quickest long-run times when teams switched to race rehearsals in the second half.
Best of the rest was the Haas of Romain Grosjean, almost a full half-second adrift of the top six, with Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault finding the speed to put the German in eighth place ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the second Haas and Ocon’s Racing Point Force India.
Earlier in the day Fernando Alonso, preparing for his final race, caught the eye in a special McLaren livery while Spanish compatriot Carlos Sainz showed his respect by wearing a new Alonso-themed #14 helmet.
In the opening session Robert Kubica, the Polish driver whose return to F1® racing with Williams was announced on Friday, replaced Sergey Sirotkin and finished last, four and a half seconds off Bottas’s session-topping time, but Kubica was spending time on testing new componentry and high-fuel performance rather than chasing outright speed.
Antonio Giovinazzi, joining Sauber as a full-time F1® driver in 2019, was also given practice time in Charles Leclerc’s car and finished the opening session 16th-quickest.
The times in each session were approximately half a second faster than the corresponding times in 2017.
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