The McLarens head the Abu Dhabi timing sheets after Friday, Lewis Hamilton marginally ahead of Jenson Button.
There is no doubt that McLaren will be strong, but as ever the true picture is muddied by fuel loads.
As has been the pattern for the past few races, the Red Bulls appeared to have run the qualifying-simulation part of the session somewhat heavier than either McLaren or Ferrari, thereby disguising their underlying performance. As they then move to the multi-lap phase of second practice, the picture is reversed and the Red Bulls tend to run lighter than the McLarens.
The Friday raw numbers put McLaren 0.6s ahead of Red Bull in the qualifying part, with Red Bull around 1s faster than McLaren in the race-simulation runs.
If we apply the educated guesswork of fuel loads based on recent race weekends, we'd have McLaren and Red Bull almost equal in qualifying but with Red Bull still able to deliver better peak pace in the race, by around 0.3-0.4s. Tyre degradation on the option tyre (the soft) looks relatively low even at this early stage of the weekend, but perhaps slightly higher on the Red Bull than the McLaren.
We are missing the full Red Bull and Ferrari pictures on account of Turn 1 accidents for both Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, but we can use the long runs of Mark Webber and Felipe Massa to get a partial picture. We see that the lowest degradation was on Button's McLaren - at the end of a 12-lap run, he was 0.4s quicker than on his first serious lap of that run. In that time he will have used up around 1s-worth of fuel, meaning tyre wear was around 0.6s over the 12 laps, the lowest of any of the frontrunners.
Hamilton was 0.2s faster at the end than the beginning, and on a similar-length run Webber was equalling his early best by the end. Massa, unusually, was around 0.4s slower at the end than at the beginning, very much against the Ferrari pattern. But Massa was again testing the more-flexible version of the new front wing, and this is believed to degrade in performance as it weakens. We really needed to have seen an Alonso sequence on the standard, less-flexible wing to monitor the Ferrari's true race pace. In qualifying trim, it appeared to be around 0.4s adrift of Red Bull/McLaren. Its understeer was making the car something of a handful, with both drivers suffering many spins and incidents through the two sessions.
So Button potentially can run the longest, but can he run fast enough for that to count? The fact that Webber could go a (guestimated) fuel-weight-corrected 0.3-0.4s faster than the McLarens, but still suffer only slightly more tyre wear, suggests he would have the pace to establish a big enough lead over them to pit a lap later and still retain the lead - and we don't know just how much faster Vettel might have been. As it was, Seb returned to the track for a short run on the primes (mediums) which are around 1s/lap slower.
In summary, don't be expecting a shock result. But if a McLaren can somehow get ahead at the start, then the race becomes seriously interesting.
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