Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: A gold topped Lewis Hamilton topped the times with record speed on Friday as he and Sebastian Vettel traded fastest laps in second practice for this weekend’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
As both men and their Mercedes and Ferrari teams set about claiming the early momentum in a ‘development war’ race ahead of the 2018 season, Vettel conceded that he was racing already as if it was a new year.
"We try stuff all the time to improve the car – not specifically for next year – but everything we tried the last two weeks is for next year,” he said. "The mind-set is that we are already in next year.
"It’s important to finish on a high. The better the result, the better the mood. We will try our best, but in our heads I think we are already thinking about next year’s car."
Hamilton reeled off his track record lap as he topped the times for Mercedes ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari in the twilight second free practice.
The newly-crowned four-time world champion Briton clocked a best lap of one minute and 37.877 seconds to outpace German Vettel, also a four-time champion, by one-tenth of a second in a session that began in sunlight and finished after dark.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was third quickest for Red Bull ahead of the Finns Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari and Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes with Dutchman Max Verstappen sixth for Red Bull.
"It's been a good day, but I'm happy that it's the last Friday of the season,” said Hamilton.
"We got lots of laps in today and made good progress with the balance of the car. We have a bit of work to do, but I feel like we're quite competitive here.
"It's relatively close still, but I like that. Especially for this weekend, I've got a helmet with gold leaf for the World Championship, which I'm really grateful for.”
On Twitter he added: “This season has been awesome, but we approach this race weekend exactly the same as all the others. We’re giving it absolutely everything, as if we’re still fighting for the championships.”
Vettel added that he was slower in the final sector of the lap at the Yas Marina circuit.
"I think they (Mercedes) are very quick. I was very happy, to be honest, with the lap, but maybe we need more in the final sector.”
In a tightly-contested session, Raikkonen and Bottas also topped the times, suggesting overall that all three leading teams are in with a chance to win Sunday’s day-night race at the spectacular Yas Marina circuit.
Hamilton, running on ultra-soft tyres in the closing stages, gave a withering assessment of the Pirelli compound. “This is the worst tyre I've ever driven,” he said.
His pithy comment provided one of the most dramatic moments in an otherwise pedestrian session as the teams prepared ahead of Saturday’s qualifying.
Behind the top six, the Force India cars of Mexican Sergio Perez and Frenchman Esteban Ocon led the way in seventh and eighth ahead of German Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda.
In blazing sunshine earlier, Vettel had topped opening practice, but Hamilton bounced back under the floodlights to finish the day in charge.
As they battled at the front, luckless rookie New Zealander Brendon Hartley learned that he will start his fourth F1 race in a row with a grid penalty after his Toro Rosso team replaced part of his Renault power unit.