But Lewis Hamilton admits he has to improve after struggling to find his “rhythm” ahead of leading his team’s qualifying charge in pace-setter Valtteri Bottas’ absence – with another close three-team battle for pole predicted on Saturday.
Bottas shines, but can Hamilton carry pole hopes?
Although they have wrapped up both 2019 titles, Mercedes have only secured one pole in an extremely competitive last nine races, with Ferrari and more recently Red Bull outpacing the world champions.
Friday at Yas Marina therefore provided the perfect tonic for the Silver Arrows as they topped both sessions, although it was Bottas, who has a new engine and a back-of-the-grid start, and not Hamilton who set the pace.
Bottas enjoyed a dominant lead throughout Friday but behind him it was much closer, particularly in Practice Two when Hamilton and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were split by a tenth, with Max Verstappen not far behind in the Red Bull.
“I think we’ve got a good battle on our hands here between Mercedes and Ferrari,” predicted Sky F1’s Karun Chandhok.
“I wouldn’t yet discount Verstappen.”
Paul Di Resta added: “It’s the last sector where Mercedes are getting the work done. Slow-speed stability is that car’s strength.”
With Bottas unlikely to complete all of qualifying in order to best prepare for the race, Hamilton, who was third in P1 before beating Leclerc by just 0.008s in P2, is set to carry Mercedes’ hopes for a final 2019 pole alone.
And it is fair to say the F1 champion was not completely happy with his day.
“A bit of an unusual Friday to be honest,” said Hamilton. “Just getting into the rhythm wasn’t really possible for me today, but you have your good and bad days.
“Nonetheless, the car still feels good, there’s areas where we can work on and there’s definitely areas where I would say I could work on myself.
“I’ll just sit down tonight and make sure I get that straight for tomorrow.”
Hamilton’s still looking to ‘explore’ Mercedes
Hamilton also claimed he felt “erratic” as he looked to “explore” and “unlock” the Mercedes W10 in an attempt to make a headstart for 2020.
“I’m really pushing the car into a different place in these last two races, just to explore,” he explained. “I’m really trying to see if there’s anywhere else where I can exploit the tyres. But that’s making it a little bit more erratic and not as smooth-flowing, and simple in terms of my driving style.
“It’s making a little bit more difficult than it really needs to be. But I feel that I need to go through that process to see if I can etch a little bit more for the future.”
Hamilton added: “I’m definitely hoping to unlock something, and utilise some different tools that I haven’t really touched through the year because they haven’t really worked before. But I’m just trying to explore and see whether or not I can get them to work.
“It’s a really pre-emptive thought process for next year. Even though next year’s car is going to be different, there’s still going to be things I might be able to apply.
“It doesn’t really matter to me that I’m not quickest at the moment, it’s really just an exploratory experience, trying to see if there’s something better there.
“Hopefully I can get the car back to where it needs to be, and hopefully I’ll be where I need to be to get the job done.”
Ferrari in the hunt despite shunts?
Ferrari, who have six poles in eight races since the summer break, would appear to be Mercedes’ greatest threat in qualifying.
“P2 was pretty positive, apart from the race pace on the soft where we can do better,” said Leclerc. “We need to work quite a bit on that. But the hard [tyre] race pace was very strong so that is a good thing.”
But while Leclerc and Vettel were much closer to their main rivals in P2 than in the opening session, their day certainly wasn’t trouble-free as both drivers made contact with the T19 wall.
Vettel span and crashed in P1, while Leclerc hit the same barrier on a flying lap in the later floodlit session.
“The whole third sector is pretty difficult because it’s overheating in the rear [tyres] but especially this corner, as soon as you go wide you lose a lot of grip,” claimed Leclerc. “I’ve been surprised by that.”
Vettel continued: “I didn’t expect to actually spin. I knew that going in I’d have to catch the rear and it didn’t quite work. It was a bit unfortunate, so there was do damage other than the rim. So got lucky.”