Practice sessions in Formula 1 tell you something, for sure, about a given driver’s chances on Sunday, but it’s always incomplete information at best. Teams are still experimenting and drivers are still testing the limits of the track. Still, as a rough guesstimate of Sunday’s finishing places, you could do a lot worse. And so far so good for the seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, after he finished with the fastest time in FP2, the fastest session of the day.
Hamilton, of course, is tied with Max Verstappen on points with Abu Dhabi the last race to go. If Hamilton or Verstappen win the race, they win the driver’s championship. If they remain tied at the end, Verstappen wins the championship by virtue of winning more races this season. If Hamilton finishes in the top ten and higher than Verstappen, Hamilton wins the championship, and vice versa. Pretty much no one thinks both drivers will finish out of the top ten but if they do then Verstappen wins, unless of course that happens and Hamilton also gets a point for fastest lap, in which case Hamilton would win.
These are the stakes for Sunday, in a race that in recent years has been largely about qualifying, since the circuit wasn’t conducive to much passing. But with a tweaked layout this year, organizers are hoping that is less the case, and so is the viewing public, too, since this most dramatic of Formula 1 seasons deserves a fitting finale. Everyone was playing nice in the build-up, after a season of acrimony.
“I can understand the rationale that if things go against a team or the two drivers, I can get quite emotional in the moment and Christian has his own way of dealing with it,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said Friday, in his wry manner. It is even a story today that Wolff and Christian Horner, his counterpart at Red Bull, shook hands.
You might give Hamilton the edge on experience alone, but this is Verstappen’s seventh F1 season, and it doesn’t seem like experience is the issue for him so much as championship-winning experience, of which he has none. You might give Hamilton the edge because Mercedes seems to have the slightly better car this year, possibly illegal wing and all. That Valtteri Bottas is ahead of Sergio Pérez is more evidence of that.
You might also say that Hamilton is mentally tougher, but that is sort of unknowable; you’d be on firmer ground based on the results to say that Hamilton is the craftier racer, while Verstappen is the better qualifier. Maybe you think their chances on Sunday are dead even; their point tallies certainly are. Bettors would disagree, as a Verstappen win Sunday would be against the odds. It would also be shocking because it would mean that, for once, Mercedes and Hamilton don’t have another ace up their sleeve. The last decade of Formula 1 racing suggests they still do.