It took just five minutes of the first 90-minute free practice session for the new generation F1 cars to prove that they are going to be quicker than ever at Yas Marina Circuit.
Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time overall in the corresponding session in 2016 with a time of 1 min 42.869 seconds – and the same driver clocked 1:41.664 on his first flying lap this year in the wider, fat-tyred Mercedes that has already carried him to his fourth world title.
While Hamilton made a flying start, the time that eventually topped the session was a 1:39.006, set by the man with whom he fought an almost season-long battle for the title – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
With Hamilton second, 0.120 behind Vettel, the year’s third-best team Red Bull had the third-fastest driver in the session in the shape of Max Verstappen.
At the other end of the spectrum, George Russell was a busy young man on Friday. After his normal GP3 practice session with ART he hopped into the Sahara Force India cockpit usually occupied by Esteban Ocon for his second crack at a Formula 1 practice session.
Russell finished a highly creditable 11th, five places behind team-mate Sergio Pérez, while Antonio Giovinazzi, also having another F1 practice run in place of Kevin Magnussen in the Haas, ended the session in 18th place.
Of the four regular drivers who are also having their F1 baptism at Yas Marina Circuit, McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne was best in eighth, with Lance Stroll 13th, Pierre Gasly 14th and his Toro Rosso team-mate Brendon Hartley 20th and last.
The mystery was Fernando Alonso’s taking so long to appear in the other McLaren. On his installation lap the Spaniard was asked for some “funky driving” by his McLaren team, which must have been code for one lap only – he did not reappear until more than an hour of the session had elapsed, though he finished it in seventh place.
The most awkward moment was Romain Grosjean’s “off” at Turn 19, where the Haas driver hit the wall but was able to return to pit lane.
“It’s the same snap as before,” reported the Frenchman, “I don’t know where it comes from.” Happily, he was able to get back on track before the session ended.
There was a spectacular lock-up by the outgoing Felipe Massa in his Williams and harmless spins for Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault at Turn 14, then for Giovinazzi and Russell at Turn 17 in quick succession.
“Could you let me know the reason we lost the rear?” asked Russell. “I may have clipped the kerb?”
Not so: at that point a tail-wind was playing tricks so the young GP3 champion was blameless. The session was run, as always, in day-time conditions that do not accurately reflect those the drivers will encounter in qualifying or the race itself.