ABU DHABI // With the sun setting over the glimmering Yas Hotel, Lewis Hamilton showed it should not be forgotten that he, too, can finish tomorrow's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as the 2010 world champion.
The Briton posted the fastest lap in yesterday's second practice session, circumnavigating the Yas Marina circuit in 1min 40.888secs.
The 2008 world champion had said he has nothing to lose this weekend. Even if he wins the race, as he must if he is to give himself any hope of being champion, he needs Fernando Alonso, the world championship leader, to finish outside the top 10, Mark Webber to be outside the top five and Sebastian Vettel to finish no better than third.
Not one of those three criteria were met in practice last night as it was Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Webber who turned the quickest laps. If they finish in that order in the race tomorrow, it is Alonso, Hamilton's former teammate at McLaren-Mercedes, who would claim his third world championship title.
Hamilton credited the return to form, as he looks for his first win since Belgium in August, to a new development of his car's rear wing
"I'm really, really happy," he said in the paddock last night. "We've been hoping for some time to improve this rear wing of ours. It's not really been working since [Japan] and so we've not really been able to use it.
"We know it's got better potential and finally it's working, so that's a huge plus for us.
"The car's feeling good today, I was feeling good in the car. I've been a little bit run-down, a little bit ill, but I'm on some meds now."
Hamilton's performance will have provided both Red Bull-Renault and Ferrari with a timely reminder that the driver's championship title is not a three-horse race.
Hamilton, understandably having played down his chances in Thursday's media briefing, last night proved his impressive performance in Abu Dhabi last year - when he dominated free practice and qualifying before being forced to retire from the race with brake problems - was no mere coincidence.
It was not a perfect day for Hamilton, though, as he escaped with a reprimand from the race stewards after he was adjudged to have cut across the path of Bruno Senna's Hispania Racing Team-Cosworth car going into the pits after he had run wide at the previous corner.
The day's earlier practice runs were in nearly complete contrast to those of the second session.
With the hype in full flow surrounding the championship-deciding battle, the excitement had been slowly intensifying as the four potential champions prepared in their pits in the early afternoon. A sprinkling of spectators had gathered in the stands to catch their first glimpse of the most glamorous vehicles in motorsport. But their enthusiasm was doused by a brief but heavy downpour which prompted the majority of the 12 teams to wait for the track to dry out. That made for an uneventful opening hour that saw only three of the 24 drivers post lap times.
When "the big boys" - as Nico Hulkenburg, the Williams-Cosworth driver, referred to Alonso, Webber, Vettel and Hamilton on Thursday - finally clocked some times, things heated up as quickly as the weather.
As expected, the Red Bull team impressed and it was Vettel who posted the faster lap with a time of 1.42.760.
Teammate Webber, who needs to beat Alonso tomorrow by nine points for him to secure his first drivers' championship, finished fourth. The Red Bull drivers sandwiched Hamilton and his McLaren teammate Jenson Button in second and third, respectively, while Alonso finished sixth.
A content Vettel said: "I am pretty happy, there is a bit of lap time still to gain and now we need to see - we have to see the pace of the other cars, and how strong we are in comparison to them. Hopefully, we can pick up the pace and look to tomorrow."
Alonso commented that, "We are reasonably pleased with the car's level of competitiveness and the fact it feels easy to drive, but we know there is more potential that can be extracted."
By the time the second session got under way, the sun was setting and the atmosphere had intensified. Felipe Massa, Alonso's teammate at Ferrari, was forced to withdraw after stopping on the side of the track following fuel issues; Webber overran Turn 1 after misjudging his brake line, before recovering. Webber, who completed the day's opening practice with the same engine that was overheating in Brazil, changed engines for the second session but finished fourth once more - this time sandwiching Vettel and Alonso in second and third.
Less than half a second separated the four protagonists, which probably explains why the Australian remained relaxed.
"The usual suspects are at the front," Webber said. "Lewis has done a pretty good lap - and it is a pretty good day. Where Fernando, Seb and I are, we are all pretty much on similar times, so after us four I didn't take much notice."
Schedule at Yas Marina
10am – Gates open to ticket holders
11am – GP2 first race (33 laps)
12.45pm – Porsche GT3 Cup
2pm – F1 final practice session
5pm – F1 qualifying session
10am – Gates open
1.30pm – GP2 second race (22 laps)
2.45pm – Porsche GT3 Cup race (14 laps)
3.30pm – F1 drivers track parade
5pm – F1 Abu Dhabi GP (55 laps)