x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The final four set the pace

Racers Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Webber finish Friday's practice sessions with the four best times, keeping fans guessing about which man will claim this year's closely contested title.

ABU DHABI // The noise at the Yas Marina Circuit intensified yesterday in advance of qualifying sessions today and the final outcome of the 2010 Formula One season tomorrow.

The aural experience included the scream of race cars as they navigated the track during practice, the hubbub of spectators who arrived early for race weekend and the music accompanying partygoers on boats docked near the edge of the track.

"That wasn't bad," the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel said with satisfaction of practice sessions yesterday, as the 19-race Formula One season winds down to three final, frantic days.

After a jolting rainstorm in the morning, a wet-tyre practice session at midday and a dry practice run in the late afternoon, the four leading men in the title race also posted the four fastest laps.

In a twist, fastest among them was Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion now in fourth place who has a faint mathematical chance of winning. Hamilton's lap of one minute, 40.888 seconds proved best on the day and hinted that his car might finally possess the extra edge it has generally lacked against the two cars from Red Bull-Renault Racing and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari.

"I think for Lewis it's a bit simpler actually than for the others," said his McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh. At 24 points behind first-place Alonso, Hamilton is shooting for the full 25 points that go to the winner of tomorrow's race.

The crowd just behind Hamilton, however, hold out the promise of a weekend full of dramatic permutations. Vettel was second-fastest, followed by Alonso and Mark Webber, Vettel's Red Bull teammate. Webber, in fact, is the driver with the best chance of catching up Alonso, whose 246 points lead Webber's 238, Vettel's 231 and Hamilton's 222.

The day featured plenty of spins, and while all four driving contenders did stray off the track at various stages, none did so in any dramatic fashion. The rain during the second practice session prompted Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who was eliminated from the running for this year's championship last Sunday in Brazil, to observe that the Yas Marina track had ample grip.

The environment reminded Webber of the season opener in Bahrain in March, calling the nail-biting decision of this final weekend "the only thing that's changed ...you can't try any harder".

Said Vettel: "I think there is some lap time still to gain, so we will analyse things now and hopefully pick up some pace tomorrow" - racing talk for speed.

"Tomorrow" would be the qualifying sessions that will take place today, and recent weeks indicate it could be another showpiece for Red Bull Racing, which has claimed 14 pole positions in the first 18 races en route to the constructors' championship, the annual honour accorded the team gathering the most points.

Alonso, the season champion in both 2005 and 2006 who is seeking a first title with Ferrari, said: "I expect the qualifying to be very tight. Let's hope we can get closer to the Red Bulls than we have been in the past." A wish made on the eve of a weekend with a forecast calling for increasing noise and tension.