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What we learned from Friday practice at the F1 Abu Dhabi GP

On the final Friday practice of the 2023 Formula 1 season, there were plenty of new faces on show, with 10 rookies in action in Abu Dhabi's FP1 session. But, when the full complement of grand prix drivers returned for second practice, the running was stalled by two red flags, which muddied the waters at the Yas Marina Circuit

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23

James Sutton / Motorsport Images

George Russell and Charles Leclerc topped two intriguing Formula 1 practice sessions at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, amid a swathe of rookie appearances in FP1 and incidents in FP2.

In total 10 rookies and reserves assumed driving duties during the first of the two timed sessions on Friday as most teams opted to use one of their mandatory 'young' driver allowances in the last FP1 session of the year, already restricting track time for half of the 2023 F1 regulars at the Yas Marina Circuit.

A brace of wall-bothering incidents cut down their running even further, as both Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg crashed in the night-time FP2 to waste a cumulative total of 36 minutes of action as the red flag was produced.

With no representative longer runs on show during the second session, gauging the prospective performance of each car on Sunday would be a fruitless pursuit, but there were otherwise plenty of take-aways from the two Friday sessions among the new faces and token qualifying runs.

The story of the day

F1's rookie ruling mandates that each of the 20 race drivers must vacate their seats for a reserve with less than two grand prix starts, and every team bar AlphaTauri elected to use one of their berths at the end of the season.

There were now-familiar faces taking their positions in FP1, as Jack Doohan, Felipe Drugovich, Theo Pourchaire, and Robert Shwartzman assumed their roles as reserve for Alpine, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo, and Ferrari respectively. They took part in the session alongside McLaren's IndyCar racer Pato O'Ward, recently announced as one of McLaren's myriad F1 reserves, Mercedes young driver Frederik Vesti, and Williams junior Zak O'Sullivan. Haas fielded Ferrari youngster Ollie Bearman for the second time, as Red Bull used both seats to hand a drive to junior product Isack Hadjar and current Formula E champion Jake Dennis.

Of the 10, Drugovich found himself highest on the timesheets and ended the hour-long session in second, 0.288s behind Russell. Shwartzman was the other of the rookie drivers in the top 10, having worked his way up to eighth ahead of Pierre Gasly.

Drugovich impressed out of the total of 10 rookie drivers in FP1 action

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Drugovich impressed out of the total of 10 rookie drivers in FP1 action

Owing to the cooler temperatures produced as the sun had started to set ahead of second practice, conditions were more consistent with Sunday's race and thus created a more representative window for the drivers to dial in their cars. Russell reached the top again amid the early laps as most drivers conducted their opening laps on the medium and hard tyres, but Sainz put a pin in the session with his Turn 3 crash.

The Spaniard effectively replicated Lando Norris' crash in Las Vegas after losing control of his Ferrari over a bump, which pitched him into an irreversible spin and slide into the barrier on the left-hand side of the track. Although Sainz reported that he was OK, there was heavy damage to the Tecpro barrier and thus required almost half an hour to replace the compromised pieces.

The session had barely resumed when Nico Hulkenberg sustained a slide out of Turn 1, backing his car into the inside Armco barrier and breaking much of the rear wing. The clean-up operation required for the Haas was significantly quicker and thus left 16 minutes on the clock for drivers to conduct qualifying simulations - race-style long runs were out of the question at this juncture.

Leclerc flew to the top amid the soft-tyre runs, logging the first time within the 1m24s of the day; Lando Norris and Max Verstappen joined him in that ballpark later on, overhauling a strong effort from Valtteri Bottas as Alfa Romeo unlocked a decent turn of pace.

"We've seen before with this generation of cars that any of these small bumps can really make you spin, make you have a pretty heavy crash" Carlos Sainz

Verstappen had been in little mood to hang around in the pitlane following each of the red flags, having been aggrieved by the attempts by both Williams drivers to blend into the queue after the first red flag from their garage closest to the pit exit. Once the session had resumed following the Hulkenberg crash, the Red Bull driver attempted to muscle past Russell and Lewis Hamilton in the tight confines of the underground crossover. Having displayed his otherworldly spatial awareness as he moved past the two Mercedes, Verstappen ultimately could not get past Gasly's Alpine until just after the pit exit line.

Ride height conversation grows after Sainz crash

Like Norris in Las Vegas, there was little that Sainz could do to arrest the slide that handed his mechanics more work to do overnight. A bump on the entry to Turn 3 caused his Ferrari to bottom out and produce a snap as the underbody voided itself of downforce. It was the second time in just over a week that Sainz had caused a red flag in a practice session after eight minutes of running.

Sainz reckoned that in the two years since much of the Yas Marina Circuit was resurfaced in light of the changes at Turn 9 and around the hotel section, the bump at Turn 3 had risen slightly - with another at Turn 2 with the potential to unsettle the car.

Sainz's practice running ended prematurely for the second consecutive race weekend

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Sainz's practice running ended prematurely for the second consecutive race weekend

"For some reason there's been a change in the track compared to other years, there's two bumps, one at the exit of Turn 2, and one at the entry of Turn 3 that with this new generation of cars it's upsetting the car a lot," he explained. "It nearly caught me out in FP1, I changed a few things in the set-up and in the line trying to get rid of it.

"And then for some reason again, in that lap, it surprised me. It must have been an angle or exactly a way that I took the bump, and it made me a passenger from there on. We've seen before with this generation of cars that any of these small bumps can really make you spin, make you have a pretty heavy crash."

Despite the heavy damage to the car, Sainz does not anticipate any forthcoming power unit penalties for the rest of the weekend. This would be good news for Ferrari, which is seeking to make a late play for second in the constructors' championship having got to within four points of Mercedes thanks to a stronger second half of the season.

Having been one of the cars to follow Sainz around the opening flurry of corners before the Spaniard's crash, Daniel Ricciardo observed that Ferrari had perhaps gone too low with its ride heights to account for the bump in the road. The Australian likened it to his own crash during FP2 at Monaco last year when he hit the wall in the Swimming Pool section, another situation where running the car low to extract downforce had not been entirely compatible with a bumpy track surface.

He reckoned that this would be a subject for drivers' briefings in the future, as would the subject of adding time back onto practice sessions to make up for any extensive red flag periods.

"It looked like they were probably just running the car too low, because he looked like he was already starting to kind of hit," Ricciardo assessed. "It's kind of what happened with Lando in the last race. It's strange because Turn 2 and 3, we should be able to do with our eyes closed. They're fast corners but they're easy flat. So that's why I see strange.

"I look back at my Monaco crash last year in the Swimming Pool. That's the only thing with these cars; you have to run them so low at the rear to get the downforce out of them and you end up going into a place that becomes pretty sketchy.

"You can't do anything. You can't react. Obviously, you saw Carlos, he's turning, and then all of a sudden he's Mr. Passenger. So happy to hear he was alright."

Hulkenberg caused the second red flag in FP2

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Hulkenberg caused the second red flag in FP2

Hulkenberg's incident was more unusual, and he reckoned that he had "picked up the power bit too soon while I was laterally still grip limited" while attempting to start a flying lap after the restart. This ensured that he had enjoyed barely 10 minutes of track time in FP2 after giving up his seat to Bearman, and thus will have to hope for an issue-free FP3 session as he acquaints himself with a layout of the Abu Dhabi circuit that he has scarcely experienced.

Team boss Guenther Steiner does not anticipate any particular worries with regards to penalties either, as the gearbox was an old unit that was due to be swapped out for Saturday and Sunday's action.

How did FP1's rookies get on?

Beyond Drugovich's efforts to get into the top two in FP1, the other rookies were largely responsible for following the test programmes outlaid by the teams; slower running is encouraged to minimise the chance of errors that could compromise the rest of the weekend.

Drugovich has signed for a second year as Aston Martin's reserve, having apparently turned down IndyCar and Formula E opportunities to reprise his role, and "delivered what we expected" according to team principal Mike Krack.

"Mercedes looks very strong. I don't know what happened exactly in FP2, they look little bit less strong compared to FP1. But we've got a lot of work to do because it will be tight with them this weekend" Charles Leclerc

For Pourchaire and Doohan, more latitude was granted as the duo were now in their third and fourth free practice sessions respectively; Doohan initially carried out some aero testing as he covered for Esteban Ocon but later set a lap just 0.145s shy of Gasly in FP1, as Pourchaire was 0.64s off Bottas' effort as the Finn looked immediately at home on the Abu Dhabi circuit.

"Jack did well," reckoned Alpine chief Bruno Famin. "We had a programme to develop. We started with all the aero measurement, which is very unpleasant always for the young drivers who just want to do laps and laps. But no, he did well, he had a moment with the traffic on track, I think, but not from his fault. We're happy with the work he has done and the team will use it for the other practices."

Four-time IndyCar race winner O'Ward was under half a second away from Oscar Piastri during his run for McLaren, as the Mexican celebrated his signing as an official McLaren reserve (a role occupied previously by IndyCar champion Alex Palou) with his second free practice appearance for McLaren. F2 title contender Vesti was 0.743s away from Russell's FP1 headliner, and F3 runner-up O'Sullivan made his first FP1 appearance for Williams with a time 0.718s off Logan Sargeant's pace. Both will drive for Mercedes and Williams respectively in the post-grand prix tyre test at Yas Marina.

Formula E champion Dennis was also in action in FP1

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Formula E champion Dennis was also in action in FP1

The most intrigue surrounded Red Bull, which used both of its mandatory young driver slots ahead of the season finale. Isack Hadjar made his second FP1 appearance of the season having driven Yuki Tsunoda's AlphaTauri in Mexico City, and the Red Bull junior suffered a near-miss with a languid Lance Stroll at Turn 6 having encountered the Aston Martin at full steam into the corner. The Franco-Algerian racer had to take to the run-off to avoid him, and ultimately ended the session 17th - a tenth behind Dennis.

Dennis, a long-time simulator driver for Red Bull, had participated in a test for the Milton Keynes squad before: at Hungary in 2018. But this was the Formula E champion's first trial by fire in an official session, and had to pit after his exploratory lap to tighten his crash helmet having perhaps been caught by surprise by the overall speeds of an F1 car. He ended the session 16th fastest and, despite their lowly positions, Christian Horner was more than happy with his drivers' efforts.

"I actually thought they did very, very well. I mean, working to the programmes that they were working with, with the fuel loads and engine settings that they were operating to, I thought they acquitted themselves extremely well," Horner said.

"I think for Jake a massive step from a Formula E car to Formula 1 power. It was quite telling that the first adjustment that he needed to make was to tighten his crash helmet due to the speed that he was achieving.

"But I thought both did a great job. Very useful for us, to compare the virtual world that these guys have been driving in with Isack and Jake doing a lot of simulator running this year, to correlate that with the real world. And so, a really useful exercise and a great opportunity for them to get a run out in a grand prix car."

What they said

George Russell: "That was a relatively positive Friday for us. There were a lot of rookie drivers out there on track in FP1, so we didn't get a completely clear gauge of where our relative pace was. Fred did a good job for the team though, and we got a lot of useful data to look over. FP2 was clearly an interrupted session so again, we couldn't get a read on where we were stacking up against our competitors or a true picture of where our pace may be."

Charles Leclerc: "We did one lap on the medium and straight away up on the soft, and of course feeling pretty good. So, it's a good sign when it starts like this. I hope we can have a great weekend from now on, but it's true that also Mercedes looks very strong. I don't know what happened exactly in FP2, they look little bit less strong compared to FP1. But we've got a lot of work to do because it will be tight with them this weekend."

Max Verstappen: "We had limited track time in FP2 so we weren't able to learn as much as we wanted to. I didn't expect the balance to be so far off, there was a lot of understeer and jumping. There's a lot to figure out in tomorrow's practice session. Of course, we're still P3 so it's not too bad, I just think balance wise it could be much better. We need to make some big improvements to be good in qualifying tomorrow."

The sun sets on the 2023 F1 season this weekend

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The sun sets on the 2023 F1 season this weekend

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