Bottas back on top in Friday free practice ahead of returning Hamilton for Abu Dhabi GP

Valtteri Bottas reclaimed his unofficial title as the king of Friday free practice by topping the lap times ahead of returning teammate Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

With Hamilton having missed last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix after returning a positive test for COVID-19, George Russell topped free practice before having race victory cruelly denied by a botched pit stop under the safety car.

Perhaps Bottas had something extra to prove, his lap time of 1m36.276s was 0.203s quicker that Hamilton’s mark as the top three drivers all set their fastest times on the medium compound tyre. The second Red Bull of Alexander Albon was fourth fastest as he fights for his race seat, with Lando Norris an impressive fifth fastest ahead of Sakhir GP winner Sergio Perez, Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo.

“It was good. Good practice sessions,” reflected Bottas afterwards. “Immediately the car felt pretty good. As always, work to do with the balance. The main issue was getting the balance together throughout the lap. Some corners I’m struggling with the front end, some corners with the rear end, but overall it’s not far off, as the time shows.”

2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Friday – LAT Images

It was perhaps telling that the fastest times were set on the medium compound, and that could give Mercedes a big advantage going into the rest of the weekend.

“It was tricky, I didn’t really get the softs into the window today. On my opening lap I started the lap and didn’t have any grip, and the following lap they were overheating massively, so work to do there, because from my side the medium today felt like the better tyre but it shouldn’t be that way. If we can get everything out of the soft, in theory that should be better.”

For Hamilton, it was just good for him to be back in the car and competing again after his enforced isolation due to contracting coronavirus.

“I was very, very happy and grateful this morning just to be back here and obviously to try and finish off the season strong. Super excited, it felt like first day back at school, kind of thing. It definitely was… kind of took a minute to get back used to it for the first session, and then the second one still getting my bearings, but not too bad. I think we got through most of our stuff we missed out on the 40-minute session at the start of the day but otherwise got most of the stuff done.”

It clearly must have been an unusual feeling for Hamilton to have missed out on his first grand prix since he entered the sport. Yet he still congratulated Russell on his fine drive.

“I think George did an amazing job. I think everyone knows that. It was definitely odd. And for me, from my 27 years of racing, I’ve never missed a race. One day I’ll write a book about it but, as I said, I’m just grateful to be back.

“I don’t think I need to do any more to seal what I’ve done, I just want to come here and enjoy it this weekend and enjoy what I do. I don’t think I feel like I have anything to prove, just here to have some fun.”

The session was not entirely without incident, as Hamilton suffered a clutch issue, that required a steering wheel change and a restart after stopping in the Haas pit box.

2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Friday – LAT Images

“It’s definitely been a bit of a messy day and there’s a lot going on,” added Hamilton. “The guys have been on the road for three weeks, so I’ve had a couple of gremlins, but we come through as we always do, and tomorrow I know we will be better. We got through a lot of things we needed to test for next year today, so the guys are just working as hard as they can to work on things for next year.”

Hamilton’s minor problems, however, were nothing compared to those of Kimi Raikkonen, who was forced to park up by the side of the track with a blazing engine fire minutes from the end of the session, even grabbing a fire extinguisher from a marshal to put the fire out himself.

And there were also problems for Sakhir winner Perez, who will have to start from the back of the grid after having to change an engine part.

“I’m happy with the balance of the car and the progress we’ve made today – it’s just a shame we’ll be starting near the back [due to a change of Power Unit components] because I think we have the package for another good result,” said Perez. “But it is what it is, and so our focus today has been on the long runs. We’ve been working hard to understand how the race is likely to play out and how the Pirelli tyre compounds will behave.

“Obviously, FP2 is a really important session for this because it’s much more representative than FP1. Despite the interruption in FP2, I think we’re in a strong place and we have a good idea of what to expect. There’s a lot on the line this weekend with the battle for P3 in the Constructors’ Championship, but we can go into qualifying with the pressure off and focus on the race. The goal is to fight our way into good points and see how high we can finish on Sunday.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.