Mercedes were fast but not fault-free on the first day of running in the final race weekend of 2020.
Last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix is firmly behind Mercedes; their world champion driver has returned, the crushing defeat of losing the race on a double-stack “safety” pit stop behind them. At least in theory: Lewis Hamilton’s late return, after George Russell substituted for him in Thursday’s media sessions, has not been entirely straightforward.
Hamilton seemed to suffer from the kind of problems all of us have probably experienced after someone else drives your car: Everything was just slightly off and not quite how he liked it. His first practice session was immediately disrupted by a braking problem, pressure being applied by the discs even when he wasn’t on the pedal and 40 minutes were lost resolving it in the garage.
Further problems followed in the second session. Hamilton changed steering wheels several times, though this was seemingly part of Mercedes’ test plans. Following the red flag he lost all gears while trying to exit the pit lane. Afterwards Hamilton spoke of having to move the base set-up of the car back towards his preference, but was optimistic his team will have it dialled back in overnight.
Other Friday reliability problems – Daniel Ricciardo’s power unit failure, George Russell’s MGU-K glitch and Kimi Raikkonen’s conflagration – are less likely to continue into the weekend. Most drivers were running ‘Friday power units’ made up of older parts, with fresher components ready for Saturday and Sunday. It shows how accurately teams can judge the longevity of their components at the end of this intense season that some of the older ones were not quite able to get through the last Friday of running.
Second practice is the best time of the weekend to analyse pace for the race as it takes place under similar conditions. However today’s session was disrupted first by a Pirelli 2021 tyre test (which required all drivers to run at least eight timed laps on next year’s C4 compound) and then by the red flag period caused by Raikkonen’s fire.
As a consequence, even Pirelli themselves are not sure if the apparently small difference between the hard and medium compounds is accurate or a quirk of disrupted running. “The delta between the hard and the medium, is smaller than expected,” admitted Pirelli’s head of motorsport and F1 Mario Isola. “We measured something in the range of 0.3 [seconds], we were expecting a bit more – our prediction was more 0.7.”
Isola is sceptical about this figure, but testing it before the serious action begins will be difficult as there is only one practice session left which will run in warmer temperatures than qualifying and the race.
“It’s important to understand if this number is a real one or is underestimated because it affects strategy for Sunday,” said Isola. “Obviously, we are talking about a one-stop strategy as usual in Abu Dhabi but if the hard is only 0.2, 0.3 from the medium, it means that is becoming a very suitable, race-able tyre. If it is 0.7 [then] it’s a different story.”
Several drivers, across multiple teams, said after the session that the soft tyre was particularly difficult to get an advantage out of around Yas Marina this year.
Carlos Sainz Jnr was surprised by McLaren’s lack of pace on that tyre. “Every time this week we put a soft tyre on we’ve been very slow. It’s something to find out because it’s normally the opposite with our car.
“Normally we put soft tyres, low fuel and the car gets better. But today for whatever reason, we had some problems extracting the performance out of the soft tyre. We need to find [it] because obviously qualifying here is pretty important.”
Isola said performance on this compound was much the same as in 2019, “[There was] a bit of graining on the on the soft tyre but it was the same last year. Last year, the delta between medium and soft was 0.4, 0.5 and it has been confirmed today.”
Several drivers also fell foul of track limits. Kevin Magnussen – who will take power unit component penalties on Sunday and so was not focussed on outright qualifying pace during the practice sessions – failed to stay on track at turn 21 five times during second practice.
Following updates guidance issued to the drivers, were Magnussen to do the same in the race he’d be shown the black-and-white flag and potentially referred to the stewards. Drivers will have three ‘strikes’ of running wide at the final turn before they start to face warnings and potential consequences beyond lap time deletion.
Ultimately, regardless of disrupted running or difficulties with tyres or even Hamilton’s trouble settling back into his car, Mercedes’ pace in second practice showed a clear advantage to them. Hamilton, second-fastest to Bottas, was half a second clear of third-fastest Verstappen.
The truly close fights are in the midfield. Sixth-fastest Ocon to ninth-fastest Ricciardo were separated by just three thousandths of a second, with Ricciardo and Charles Leclerc setting identical lap times.
So at a track where Mercedes are undefeated in the V6 turbo hybrid era the prospect of anyone beating them this weekend seems remote. Asked whether the black cars were out of touch Max Verstappen admitted: “Like the whole year…”
The last race of 2020 therefore looks likely to be the story of the season: Mercedes well ahead, Red Bull not quite close enough, and bedlam behind.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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Combined practice times
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Teams’ progress vs 2019
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2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
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