Lewis Hamilton outpaced team-mate Nico Rosberg by almost four tenths of a second in first practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as the pair’s title-deciding duel got underway at the Yas Marina Circuit.
Hamilton goes into the final race of the 2016 season needing to reverse a 12-point deficit to Rosberg in order to take a fourth career title and the defending champion set about the task in the right way by settting a session-best time of 1:42.869 to finish 0.374s clear of his Mercedes team-mate and sole title rival.
Should Hamilton win a fourth race in succession on Sunday, Rosberg still needs only to finish third to be crowned champion and after FP1 he might be casting a nervous glance over his shoulder at ever-improving Red Bull Racing.
In the early afternoon session in Abu Dhabi, Max Verstappen, fresh from an outstanding drive to third place in Brazil, ended the 90 minutes in P3, just five hundredths of a second behind Rosberg. Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull was just over a tenth behind the German.
Fifth place in the session went to Sebastian Vettel, though the Ferrari driver finished some seven tenths of a second behind the quickest Red Bull and more than 1.1s adrfit of Hamilton.
Vettel’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was seventh quickest, half a second back from the German and the Ferraris were split by Force India’s Sergio Perez, who set a lap of 1:44.155.
Carlos Sainz was eighth–fastest, the Toro Rosso driver setting a best time of 1:44.685. That left him three tenths clear of Williams’ Felipe Massa who is set to make his 205th and final grand prix start this weekend. Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson rounded out the top 10 order.
Elsewhere, it was a difficult session for Haas’ Romain Grosjean with the French driver complaining about the unpredictability of his car under braking. The problems eventually led to a spin at Turn One.
McLaren’s Jenson Button, who is also set for a final grand prix before a sabbatical at the end of this season, also had a tough opening session. The Briton finished in P20 and managed just 10 laps.
2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – Free Practice 1
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:42.869 28
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:43.243 31
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:43.297 26
4 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:43.362 27
5 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:44.005 27
6 Sergio Perez Force India 1:44.155 23
7 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:44.556 27
8 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1:44.685 21
9 Felipe Massa Williams 1:45.039 27
10 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1:45.168 20
11 Alfonso Celis Force India 1:45.476 26
12 Romain Grosjean Haas 1:45.600 13
13 Felipe Nasr Sauber 1:45.778 17
14 Esteban Gutierrez Haas 1:45.925 20
15 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:45.940 31
16 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1:46.219 33
17 Kevin Magnussen Renault 1:46.372 21
18 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1:46.379 21
19 Pascal Wehrlein Manor 1:46.458 29
20 Jenson Button McLaren 1:47.127 10
21 Jordan King Manor 1:47.558 27
22 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 2:01.989 4