Lewis Hamilton lost out eventually to Sebastian Vettel by just over a tenth of a second as the pair battled for superiority in practice at Yas Marina yesterday, but the 2011 race winner was satisfied that McLaren should be a closer match for Red Bull here this weekend as the world championship moves closer to its climax.
Hamilton is out of a fight that has distilled into a battle between Vettel and longtime series points leader Fernando Alonso. Each is going for a third title, and with four consecutive wins behind him the German is the odds-on favourite. But if McLaren can beat Red Bull here, it could help Alonso as Ferrari wait for a heavy update either for the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, or the finale in Brazil a week later.
Hamilton and team-mate Jenson Button comfortably set the pace in the morning's practice session, but in the afternoon Vettel moved ahead with 1min 41.751secs. Hamilton, deciding against team advice to come into the pits for a set-up change, had stayed out and gone fastest up until then, and then responded with 1min 41.919secs to keep Vettel honest. Encouragingly he was the fastest driver over the long runs which are a good guide to likely race form.
"I think we can be happy with today," Vettel said. "Overall we got a good lap on the soft-compound tyres, but in general pace the McLarens were quick and seem competitive, so they're the ones we need to look out for and beat."
Hamilton experienced similar downshift problems to those which obliged him to change his steering wheel during his pit stop in India last weekend, and neither he nor Button was really happy with the balance of their car, but overall the team believe that they have created a "promising foundation."
"Our car looked good in the first free practice session but the second was a little bit more of a challenge for me," Hamilton reported. "It was quite tricky to get a good time from the soft-compound tyres, so tonight we'll need to do some work around figuring out how to switch them on.
"We anticipated that Sebastian would be quick, and in the afternoon in particular, the Red Bulls duly picked up pace. But our car was quick in the morning, and very near the top of the timesheets all day, so we've got plenty to build on. "We'll work as hard as we can tonight, as always, and, if we can get ahead of the Red Bulls in qualifying tomorrow, it'll be a huge bonus for us."
Button said his car had been working well all day. "We're certainly in better shape here than we were in India last weekend. Everything seems to be working well, and the car is fun to drive. There are some small areas where we need to improve, but we know what we need to do.
"It's going to be crucial to get the soft tyres working well for qualifying tomorrow. I wanted to do plenty of laps during my long run today, since I missed out on quite a lot of long-run running on Friday in Delhi – and that set me back for the rest of the Indian Grand Prix weekend.
"I'm pleased to report that our car feels reasonably good over a long run here, so now we're going to be focusing on understanding just how hard we can push the tyre during a long run."
Ferrari ran with updated front and rear wings, plus some other aerodynamic modifications and as Alonso admitted that he was encouraged by their performance the team have to decide overnight whether to continue with them for final practice and qualifying today. "There are a few new developments on the car and we worked through our programme this morning and this afternoon," Ferrari technical director Pat Fry said.
Behind the scenes, the teams have been told by the FIA that the entry fees for the 2013 world championship will rise significantly, based on the points scored in 2011.
From a baseline of $400,000 (£249,546.23) in 2012, champions Red Bull will now be charged $4.4m, McLaren $2.98m and Ferrari $2.37m, based on their scores. However, the new teams such as Caterham, HRT and Marussia, who failed to score, will pay $500,000.