RACE DEBRIEF

    Formula 1 teams have a lot of work ahead of them overnight on Friday in Abu Dhabi after a disrupted day that saw very limited running in representative conditions. For the final time in 2023, here’s what we learned after practice at Yas Island.

    World champions Red Bull have work to do

    This wasn’t the smoothest of Fridays for Red Bull, who opted to use both cars in Abu Dhabi to fulfil their obligations to run young drivers in at least two FP1 sessions during a season.

    READ MORE: FP2: Leclerc leads as Sainz and Hulkenberg crash out in incident hampered second practice in Abu Dhabi

    When Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez did get behind the wheel in FP2, which took place in the evening when conditions were similar to those set to be experienced in qualifying and the race, they endured a stunted session (as did all their rivals) because of two red flags, caused by incidents for Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg.

    They completed just 16 laps apiece, split across the soft and medium tyres, with Verstappen admitting he “didn’t expect it to be so far off” and that there’s a “bit of a question mark” around the direction they need to take for the remainder of the weekend.

    The world champion said he struggled with the balance, encountering a lot of understeer with the car jumping around a lot.

    And that means they have a “lot of things to figure out for tomorrow” with a weightier focus on the simulator work and data deep dives taking place back at the factory.

    Despite the underwhelming start to the weekend, Red Bull traditionally run very well in Abu Dhabi – and have shown consistently through the year that they can bounce back after a difficult Friday. As a result, they remain favourites for pole and the win on Sunday – but they could face more of a fight.

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    McLaren emerge as podium contenders

    McLaren arrived in Abu Dhabi hopeful that the track layout would suit their car more than Las Vegas and that view was supported by our pre-event simulations that marked them out as the second fastest team.

    And from the very little running that we saw on Friday, it seems like that’s the reality – the papaya cars looking in great shape to challenge for the second row as a minimum and thus the podium on Sunday.

    READ MORE: Norris expecting 'very close' qualifying battle but insists McLaren are in a 'good position' in Abu Dhabi

    On a day when laps were at a premium, it was encouraging for Lando Norris that he felt “comfortable and confident very quickly” when he finally got behind the wheel in FP2 – having handed his car over to Pato O’Ward.

    And Oscar Piastri, returning to a track he knows after a run of events having to learn a new layout, “felt pretty confident” that if he gets everything together, he can match Norris in one-lap pace.

    Looking at the data from Friday, it’s the McLarens who have the edge over everyone in the field in the medium and high speed turns – and they lead the way on the straights, too. This bodes well in their fight with the chasing Aston Martin for P4 in the constructors’ championship.

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    Mixed fortunes for Ferrari once again

    As has been the case for much of this season, the Ferrari pace over one lap looks very, very encouraging – with Charles Leclerc able to extract a lot of performance out of the soft tyre.

    We didn’t get the chance to see what Carlos Sainz can deliver after he crashed after touching a bump and lost a heap of running time in the only representative session of the day.

    WATCH: Sainz crash brings out red flags during FP2 in Abu Dhabi

    The Spaniard can take hope from the fact his team – like all their rivals – will have plenty of historic data from this track, as well as the fact that according to our data gathered from Friday, Ferrari are just 0.02s off Red Bull in terms of ultimate pace.

    Sainz will be hoping for a clean session in FP3 to get comfortable with the track – which he said after Friday’s running had changed compared to previous years (referring to the appearance of a couple of bumps).

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    Mercedes right in the mix

    George Russell was the happier of the two Mercedes drivers after Friday's running – the Briton getting more laps and feeling more comfortable than team mate Lewis Hamilton.

    Over one lap on soft tyres, the Silver Arrows looks pretty handy – they're within a tenth of a second of the fastest team in our rankings. And they were able to get some long run data too in cooler conditions, with Russell and trackside chief Andrew Shovlin encouraged by the performance of the tyre.

    READ MORE: 'Not the greatest' – Hamilton less than happy with opening day running in Abu Dhabi

    And even if Hamilton was left ruing a lack of track time, he was encouraged by the good grip in the limited running he did manage. And perhaps his disappointment only served to highlight his belief that he can be competitive this weekend if they can lock in a good set-up and balance.

    They've got a slender four-point lead over rivals Ferrari in the fight for P2. But with Russell's confidence and the fact they are well-matched with Ferrari and McLaren in terms of pace suggests they are in a good spot to defend that position and secure a step up on last year's end of season finish.

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