The 21st and final round of the season, the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, got underway today at the ultra-modern Yas Marina circuit with three hours of free practice.
Mercedes Lead Day 1 in Abu Dhabi
There was a “Noah’s Ark” look to the top six at the end of the day, with all places snapped up by the top three teams, their drivers coming in two-by-two. Valtteri Bottas topped both sessions for Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport, with team-mate Lewis Hamilton second in the second session, third in the first. But whatever happens in tomorrow’s qualifying, the Finn will start the race from the back of the grid, because of power unit related penalties.
“It’s been a pretty good day, Valtteri was strong from the outset in FP1 and kept that good pace going in FP2 on the low fuel and also in the race simulation runs. Lewis took a little bit longer to find his rhythm with the car but seems to have got that now and was certainly fast and very effective in the long runs. The car is behaving itself and we’re hopefully of a good day tomorrow. Although we’ve had a strong day today, it’s pretty clear from looking at the Ferrari and the Red Bull that they’ve got pace in their car as well, so it’ll be an exciting day tomorrow in Qualifying where there’ll be no room for error,” said James Allison.
Up and Down Day for Ferrari
Third and fourth was the Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow duo of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Italian team, as the German damaged his car spinning at turn 19 in the morning, requiring a precautionary but penalty-free gearbox change before the night-time session. The Monegasque then chose the very same corner to have a less damaging encounter with the barriers in FP2. Vettel has had a busy week, missing Thursday’s media activity, as he only flew to Abu Dhabi yesterday, after his wife Hanna gave birth to their third child.
“In the medium low speed corners of this circuit we are still lacking speed, compared to our rivals. Sector three is the one that really hurts us, we are struggling with the tyres getting hot, and the car is difficult to drive. Of course when you drive on the limit, any car will be more difficult to drive, and this what we are here to do. We will try our best to have a solid weekend, we can improve the set up and then see if we can fight well on Sunday. Today I hit the barriers: I was caught out a bit by surprise as I didn’t expect to spin. I knew going in that I would have to catch the rear, but it didn’t quite work, which was a bit unfortunate, but the only damage was to the rim,” said Vettel.
Red Bull Racing Struggle On Day 1
Inevitably completing the top six was the Aston Martin Red Bull Racing duo, with the winner of the last race in Brazil, Max Verstappen fifth, followed by Alex Albon. The Dutchman’s best lap was around half a second slower than Bottas’ fastest 1.36.256 and it seems that the champions-elect are back to their top form. Certainly, both drivers’ long runs looked impressive.
“Overall, it was a pretty decent Friday. I’m not entirely happy with the balance yet and there are of course still some things we need to look at and do better but overall I’m pretty pleased. Mercedes look very strong here again and will be hard to beat but I still think it will be close tomorrow. We will analyse the tyre data later today but overall there are no real surprises. The soft is quick over one lap and on race runs it drops off as expected,” said Verstappen.
Romain Grosjean Surprises for Haas
With tomorrow’s qualifying and Sunday’s race starting late in the afternoon, today’s first 90 minutes of track action was less useful than usual as it took place during the hottest part of the day, thus rendering tyre and cooling data less relevant and the same applies to tomorrow’s final hour of free practice.
Behind the usual suspects from the top three teams, today’s best was Romain Grosjean for Haas. However, his FP2 session was not without incident as he was hit by Bottas, sending both men into a spin, from which they were both able to continue. However, this did lead to a red flag, just 18 minutes from the end of the day’s track activity. The Mercedes man admitted it was his fault and he received an official reprimand, but no penalty, from the Stewards.
“It’s been a good day out on track; the car was well-balanced from the get-go. I had to take a fresh engine for the weekend which also seems be to working well. My pace looked competitive in both sessions, so from that perspective we’ve definitely started the last race weekend of the season off on the right foot, although I’m sure there’s still room for improvement for tomorrow. The track was a bit dusty on the first few runs in FP1, but it evolved quickly and then felt pretty good all through the session. The end of my FP2 session was compromised by a minor incident with Grosjean; I thought he had seen me going for the overtake on the inside, but by the time I realised that he hadn’t seen me, there was no way for me to escape anymore,” said Bottas.
First Blood in Final Battle to Toro Rosso
One battle yet to be decided on Sunday is the fight for fifth in the Constructors’ championship. Currently Renault F1 leads Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda by 8 points. The first punch of the weekend went in favour of the Italians, as Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly were ninth and tenth quickest, while Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo, who had a power unit problem in the first session, are down in 15th and 16th.
“We didn’t have the easiest FP1 session today and this was reflected on the timing sheets. We ran the Option first followed by the Prime, which was never going to help flatter us, and we came here with a number of test items, which were unfortunately interrupted by the red flags. This means we were a little bit on the back foot during that session. Yas Marina is a track where it’s easy to get stuck in traffic, and this happened particularly to Pierre as he struggled to get a clean lap. For Dany, the car balance was quite good in FP1, while Pierre struggled a little bit more. We did a lot of analysis on the data and made a number of changes going into FP2, so we had a cleaner session this afternoon. We were able to show the true competitiveness of the car over the short runs with both cars ending the day in the top 10, which is where they should be, so that was positive. In the long runs, the Option tyre showed to be quite stable, but there is still some work to do, particularly if we make it to Q3 tomorrow as it would be the race start tyre. The performance on the other two compounds on the long runs looked pretty good, so there’s still a lot to analyse tonight, but I think we can look forward to a reasonable performance for the rest of the weekend,” said Toro Rosso Chief Race Engineer Jonathan Eddolls.
Formula 1 Farewells
The final race of the year is often the time for farewells and this Sunday will mark the last Grand Prix appearances – at least for the foreseeable future – for Robert Kubica, the Williams ROKiT driver and the aforementioned Hulkenberg. Back in August, the French team announced that Esteban Ocon would replace the German and only yesterday, Williams announced that their current reserve driver, Nicholas Latifi will step up to the race team next year. It means the 2020 grid will, for the first time in many years, feature two Canadian drivers, Latifi and Lance Stroll.