First blood to Lewis Hamilton, then. The reigning world champion was fastest in both practice sessions at the start of a Grand Prix weekend in Abu Dhabi that will settle a 2016 Formula 1 World Championship that at times has compressed and stretched like a bungee cord.
The British driver was just 0.079 second faster than his teammate Nico Rosberg in the second session at Yas Marina, with Sebastian Vettel in third—0.269 second behind Hamilton—with Red Bull’s wayward but brilliant wunderkind Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo fourth and fifth. Kimi Raikkonen was sixth in the second Ferrari. Of course, the times during Friday practice can mislead, as teams experiment with tire choice, chassis settings, and fuel loads. But who’d bet against this as the likely top six after qualifying tomorrow?
There’s a sense that F1’s moral compass—if ever you could imagine such a thing existing—is set to a Rosberg title victory. This is Nico’s year, surely, and hasn’t it just had that feel about it since the start? No?
In purely empirical terms, Hamilton trails him by 12 points, with 25 left on the table. Lewis may have arrived in Abu Dhabi off a hot three-race winning streak, but even if he adds a fourth consecutive victory, it won’t be enough to win a fourth world championship if Rosberg keeps his head and takes a second or third place. This seems the likeliest scenario. (Beyond that, the permutations become very complex.)
On the other hand, Yas Marina has often been the scene of last-gasp drama, and Lewis himself had to watch as Raikkonen snuck up on the outside back in his rookie season in 2007, and reeled in a 17-point deficit with two races left, to win his sole world championship (also Ferrari’s last, which is a stat that drives the Scuderia demented with frustration).
Does the memory of that stay with Hamilton, even now? Well, what do you think? “Not really ’cos I mean… it doesn’t really make any difference to this weekend,” he observed.
Both Mercedes drivers head into this showdown surely content that they’ve done the best job they could. In their press conference on Thursday, there was an unusual degree of equanimity, Lewis even deigning to reflect on his long relationship with Rosberg. “We had a lot in common. We both love pizza, we loved eating boxes of Kellogg’s Frosties and doing all the crazy things and we’d go out on big motorbike tours,” he noted. “I still do every one of those, but Nico has shifted in the sense that he’s very solely focused in terms of looking after himself.”
So now we know what his favorite cereal is (bit sugary, I’d have thought).
“I think we’ve been able to manage it pretty well and I’m really happy for him and his family,” Lewis continued, “and proud of stepping away from being our competitive selves, proud of him of how he’s driven, and generally it’s been a pleasure having him as a teammate.”
Clearly, some Zen has descended. Lewis can take solace from the fact that a 12-point gap is nothing compared to the 43-point deficit he had to endure after the first five races. Despite the imperious technical and strategic lead Mercedes has enjoyed in the hybrid era, and the fact that modern F1 cars are vastly more reliable than they used to be, Hamilton has still seen his engine fail three times: in China, Russia, and Malaysia (he intimated an intra-team conspiracy after the last of those, you’ll recall).
“There have been moments in the year where… 43 points behind, I thought it was impossible to come back, but somehow turned it around. So, I think this year continued to show me that anything’s possible if you put your mind to it. I’ll keep facing the races that are coming with that mentality.”
For sure, this is not the Snapchat-fiddling, media-bating Lewis who has popped up recently. It’s also worth noting that one of his key mentors—former McLaren team doctor Aki Hintsa—lost his battle with cancer last week, but an understandably emotional Hamilton is attempting to parlay this into a positive.
“I got to see him on the last day. To have finished his life so early was definitely tough to see, but I come here with almost double the power in the sense that I want to win this race more for him.”
Rosberg, whose calm self-possession and generally upbeat demeanor has not wavered across the dozen or so occasions I’ve spoken to him, doesn’t even get riled by the suggestion that he has benefited from Hamilton’s mechanical misfortune in 2016.
“Of course I’m aware of how the season has gone for both of us but those thoughts… first of all the season isn’t even finished. I’m just here to win and I know that with the car that I have and the form that I’m in, I can make it happen.”
There is a melancholia elsewhere in the Yas Marina pit-lane. Jenson Button conceded on Thursday that he is approaching this race, his 305th, as his last, effectively confirming his retirement.
JB’s talent is more mercurial and a little more difficult to quantify than, say, Hamilton’s, yet his record against his former McLaren teammate suggests that he is closer than some would suggest. A Prost to Hamilton’s Senna, perhaps.
And while Lewis continues to divide opinion, even among the usually partisan British F1 fanbase, Jenson matches pretty much everyone’s ideal of a racing driver. He will be greatly missed, but we await his next move with interest. With his departure along with Felipe Massa’s, there’s a definite sense this weekend that the old guard is transitioning just as the next generation gets into, well, top gear.
Following that remarkable performance in Brazil a fortnight ago, let’s go beyond this weekend and make a one-word prediction for 2017: Verstappen.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.