x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Green for go as the real action gets under way

After the parties, the music and the razzmatazz it is the turn of the men who really matter to take centre stage.

Lewis Hamilton's impressive pace makes him a favourite for pole in this afternoon's qualifying session though he faces a tough challenge from the Red Bull drivers.
Lewis Hamilton's impressive pace makes him a favourite for pole in this afternoon's qualifying session though he faces a tough challenge from the Red Bull drivers.

Yesterday afternoon the talking came to an end as Mark Webber's Red Bull-Renault exited the pit lane, navigated the tricky underground pit tunnel and screamed out on to the Yas Marina Circuit at turn three. Forget the concerts, films and the Formula One police car, the sport had finally arrived in town as the cars were put through their paces for the first time since their arrival.

The practice day for tomorrow's Grand Prix took place with the screaming noise of 20 2.4 litre V8 engines echoing across the complex and out into the desert. These practice sessions are always an interesting, if complex, business. The 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren teammate Heikki Kovalainen will have been far from upset at being fastest in the respective afternoon and evening sessions, even though pace in these sessions does not always translate into competitive pace on race day.

Hamilton's impressive pace makes him a favourite for pole in this afternoon's qualifying session, although both the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Webber have looked good, with both working hard on race set-up. Hamilton was buoyed with his form, finishing second behind Kovalainen in the second session. "I think at the moment the car is going better than it has all year," he said. "It has just been getting better and better and I don't know why, if it was the conditions, but it was a real pleasure to drive.

"I hope to carry it on. We have to wait and see what others are doing but we definitely have good pace." It will be a fascinating duel between McLaren and Red Bull for top spot, with BrawnGP not too far off the pace as world champion Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello featured in the top 10 in both sessions. Teams tested tyre compounds, different pressures on the tyres, car set-up, and differing fuel loads as they tried to assess what will give them the optimum chance of being quick come qualifying and then the all important race.

But given none of the drivers had turned a wheel in anger prior to yesterday at Yas Marina there was always going to be added interest. It was the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari who set the first competitive lap time of 1min 55.624secs, though he ran wide at turn 19 as the Spaniard struggled on the dusty circuit. The first 30 minutes saw little track action as most drivers completed installation laps, checking all parts of the car were operating, with only the Toro Rossos of Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi circulating - clearing dust off the racing line in the process.

But soon it was action all across the track as all the drivers got to know their new surroundings, choosing to use the medium compound tyre so they preserved their soft sets for qualifying when the grip levels on the track had improved. Surprisingly the first spinner was Button, who ended up facing the wrong way after getting it wrong coming out of turn 19 exiting the hotel: a part of the track that caught out several drivers.

That did not seem to put the Brawn driver off as he recovered to trade fastest times with his compatriot Hamilton in the final third of the first session, an entertaining duel between the out-going champion and his replacement. It was Hamilton who was quickest though in the afternoon heat on 1.43.989. The real fast times were always going to come in the evening session. As dusk fell and the temperature dropped the drivers found time quickly, with Hamilton immediately bettering his first session time by a second.

All 20 drivers went faster than Hamilton's best time in the early afternoon session. After an early spate of quick time much of the session was spent with cars running on heavier fuel as the teams evaluated how tyres would behave, before Kovalainen went fastest in the final moments on 1.41.307, with the top 13 covered by less than a second. The spectators in the West Stand got to see more of Adrian Sutil then the German would have wanted as he out-braked himself badly at the end of the long straight, and slithered into the run-off area underneath the grandstand before pointing himself in the right direction and getting himself back on track.

The only casualty of the day was Robert Kubica's BMW Sauber, which pulled off at Turn Seven with engine failure. In other news Timo Glock said he is likely to leave the Toyota team at the end of the season, though he refused to name his likely destination, while Williams have confirmed they will use Cosworth engines for the 2010 season. @Email:gcaygill@thenational.ae Follow today's action live at www.thenational.ae/f1