Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2023

Lost running leaves Verstappen hunting balance as one Ferrari starts strongly

2023 Abu Dhabi GP Friday practice analysis

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You can tell the paddock already has one eye on their winter holidays.

Out of all the rounds on the F1 calendar, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix holds the distinct honour of hosting the final race of the championship – which it has almost every season since it joined the series in 2009.

As the season finale, this event is supposed to be the grand climax of the year. The final chapter that sees all of the major storylines of the season culminating with champions crowned and the crucial places in the constructors’ standings finalised along with the millions of dollars of prize money to go with it.

However, at the end of the most one-sided season in the history of the sport, it’s hard not to wonder how many of the competitors are simply going through the motions to the end of the weekend, where they will receive a well-earned break from traipsing across the globe on a relentless racing schedule. Perhaps this was best illustrated by the world champions, Red Bull, choosing to run both of their compulsory Friday young driver allocations in the same first practice session at the Yas Marina circuit.

Isack Hadjar, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2023
The RB19s had unfamiliar occupants in first practice
But Red Bull were far from the only team to get in their Friday driver allocation in at the last minute. Nine of the 10 teams ran a driver fulfilling F1’s criteria of being sufficiently inexperienced during the opening hour of running in Abu Dhabi. Aside from the invaluable experience afforded to that fortunate 10, there was little insight to gain from the first practice session as a result, with George Russell setting the pace for Mercedes. Neither RB19 – occupied for one session only by Jake Dennis and Isack Hadjar – appeared in the top 10.

At least the 10 drivers who missed out could expect the benefit of a full hour to catch up on their rivals when the track conditions were more representative. But that was not to be. Instead, two red flag suspensions totalling just under 34 minutes robbed the field of over half of the second session. As a result, those drivers who skipped the opening session will have technically had only a quarter of the track time they would typically have under their belts at the end of a usual grand prix Friday.

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That’s only 17 laps of data for Max Verstappen to go through overnight to find a solution to the chronic understeer problems he complained to substitute race engineer Tom Hart about through the second practice session. After asking for much more front wing following his initial run, Verstappen was still unhappy with the level of understeer he was experiencing after the lengthy red flag delay.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Yas Marina, 2023
Leclerc’s weekend started well but Sainz’s did not
“From our side, the balance was very off,” Verstappen admitted after the session. “A lot of understeer, a lot of jumping.”

But he was also reluctant to use his relative lack of track time as an easy explanation for why he had only been third-fastest at the end of the day.

“I also didn’t expect to be so far off, so that’s also a bit of a question mark for us,” he said. “We’re still P3, it’s not too bad, but balance-wise, I think it can be a lot better.”

His team mate Sergio Perez ended the session in fifth, three tenths off the best time of the day. But Perez explained away that deficit as being down to having his tyres a little too hot when he set his quickest time of the session and was more concerned about the lack of any decent long-run data that teams would ordinarily have at this stage in proceedings.

Instead, Ferrari ended Friday fastest of all. The Scuderia pushed Red Bull awfully close for the win last weekend in Las Vegas, but it was hard to know how they would fare at Yas Marina. But on the basis of Charles Leclerc posting the best time of the day – despite losing at least two tenths to many of his rivals at the first corner on his fastest lap – there was reason for optimism in the Ferrari garage.

“It’s a good sign when it starts like this,” Leclerc said after the session, “So I hope we can have a great weekend from now on.” But, he added, “we’ll wait before saying that it’s a strong circuit for us.

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“We still have to prove it tomorrow in qualifying and then tyre management will be the biggest thing this weekend and we know that we have to be prepared for that on Sunday.”

George Russell, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2023
Russell headed the notoriously unrepresentative first session
While Leclerc had one side of the Ferrari garage on top of the times, his team mate, Carlos Sainz Jnr, had his evening session cut dramatically short after spinning off the road eight minutes into the session at turn three and crashing into the TecPro barrier. While he lost over 50 minutes of potential running, Sainz at least had the benefit of an entire hour of running from the first practice session, though the changes he made after that may have led to his shunt.

“We were definitely changing things from FP1 to FP2, which might have had an effect, but obviously I’m not going to go into details of that,” he said.

Fortunately for Sainz, he appears to have avoided requiring any component changes that would trigger a grid penalty for Sunday. That could be crucial in Ferrari’s fight to beat Mercedes to second in the constructors’ championship, where they need to outscore their rivals by at least four points on Sunday to take the position. With George Russell and Lewis Hamilton ending the day in sixth and eighth positions, the Mercedes drivers said it was difficult to get a read on how they truly stack up compared to their competition.

“It was not the greatest of days,” Hamilton said. “I think I only really got probably four timed laps, really – so that’s not a lot in a day in terms of your knowledge of the car and the track. But the car doesn’t feel bad. I think we’re not in a terrible place. I just I hope I get some more running in tomorrow.”

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McLaren were not in contention throughout the Las Vegas weekend and with Yas Marina’s layout generally lacking in high speed corners, it was not a circuit that screamed that it would work in McLaren’s favour. However, Lando Norris ended the second session closest of anyone to pace setter Leclerc. And he expects it to be an especially close qualifying session on Saturday – as it often can be in Abu Dhabi.

McLaren look more comfortable at Yas Marina
“The car was obviously quite quick,” Norris said. “I think it’s just very close. It’s going to be very close here tomorrow in qualifying. One or two tenths is easily five, six positions come tomorrow afternoon. So we’re in a good position – definitely we’re more comfortable and confident than we were in Vegas and a few other races.”

With such a tight qualifying expected, drivers will be looking for extract every possible thousandth of a second out of their lap times. That will only make the fine lines of staying inside of track limits all the more critical. Although last year only two drivers were pinged for exceeding track limits during qualifying, there is a chance we could see that number rise this weekend with the FIA introducing new AI tools to help police those times set outside of the white lines.

At least the 20 drivers in the field have the benefit of a final hour of practice to try and make up for the time lost on Friday before qualifying. That could be more than enough time to Verstappen and Red Bull to find the solution to their balance issues, but even if they do, Leclerc is more concerned about Mercedes.

“It’s going to be very, very interesting,” said Leclerc. “We’ll try to maximise the little information we have. But normally it’s one of our strong points, so I hope we can take advantage of that and beat Mercedes.”

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Combined practice times

P. # Driver Team FP1 time FP2 time Gap Laps
1 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’24.809 16
2 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’24.852 0.043 18
3 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’24.982 0.173 17
4 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’26.453 1’25.024 0.215 37
5 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’25.112 0.303 17
6 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’26.072 1’25.122 0.313 43
7 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’25.223 0.414 18
8 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’25.315 0.506 16
9 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’26.720 1’25.321 0.512 41
10 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes 1’26.665 1’25.361 0.552 43
11 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’25.397 0.588 17
12 3 Daniel Ricciardo AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’26.433 1’25.467 0.658 42
13 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’26.631 1’25.492 0.683 38
14 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’25.566 0.757 17
15 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda RBPT 1’26.725 1’25.669 0.860 44
16 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes 1’26.081 1.272 20
17 34 Felipe Drugovich Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’26.360 1.551 26
18 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’27.462 1’26.413 1.604 44
19 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes 1’26.742 1’26.659 1.850 44
20 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’26.676 1’26.707 1.867 28
21 39 Robert Shwartzman Ferrari 1’26.703 1.894 25
22 42 Frederik Vesti Mercedes 1’26.815 2.006 27
23 61 Jack Doohan Alpine-Renault 1’26.865 2.056 23
24 98 Theo Pourchaire Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’27.093 2.284 20
25 29 Pato O’Ward McLaren-Mercedes 1’27.114 2.305 23
26 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’27.147 2.338 7
27 36 Jake Dennis Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’27.208 2.399 24
28 37 Isack Hadjar Red Bull-Honda RBPT 1’27.244 2.435 20
29 45 Zak O’Sullivan Williams-Mercedes 1’27.460 2.651 28
30 50 Oliver Bearman Haas-Ferrari 1’27.569 2.760 24

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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