The heat is on for Formula One’s duel in the desert

Hamilton and Verstappen go into Sunday’s finale in Abu Dhabi equal on points

With the Formula One title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen rapidly approaching its climax the tension in the paddock in Abu Dhabi is palpable. Yet there was at least a rapprochement of sorts for their two team principals. Before their duel in the desert and after a season of often bitter feuding, Mercedes' Toto Wolff and Red Bull's Christian Horner shook hands and almost made up.

For their final pre-race press conference of the year the pair reached across the F1 constructors’ trophy between them and shook hands. “Good luck, may the best man and the best team win,” said Wolff. Both were doubtless convinced that their driver was the man in question.

Hamilton and Verstappen go into Sunday's finale equal on points, only the second time two protagonists have been level pegging in the decider since 1974 when McLaren's Emerson Fittipaldi and Ferrari's Clay Regazzoni went head to head at Watkins Glen for the title, with Fittipaldi coming out on top.

This time the battle has been marked by a steady deterioration in relations between teams and their drivers and with the pleasantries over Horner swiftly intimated that his man, who was penalised twice in the last race in Saudi Arabia, had been the victim of a smear campaign.

"Max has had allegations about his driving, his driving style and driving standards, there has been a narrative pushed to put pressure on him," he said. "Lewis has used every tool available to him to put Max under pressure this year, I believe, aided by Mercedes' media machine. He's not only up against Lewis but a huge machine in Mercedes Benz, so all credit to him in the way he has handled that pressure this year."

Final showdown

Yet despite concerns that have echoed round the paddock all weekend that a crash between the two protagonists could decide the title, Horner remained bullish in insisting Verstappen would change nothing for the final showdown.

“Max drives in a manner that ignites passion, it has brought new fans into the sport this year and we do not want him to change,” he said. “We want him to drive in the exact manner he has that has put him on the precipice of fighting with Lewis for this championship.

“We have spoken about the weekend, the most important thing is for him to enjoy it and drive how he has in the previous races, to attack it in the way he has to give him those nine victories.”

Wolff and Horner have traded barbs this season, with accusations and counter-accusations of cheating, and Wolff too could not resist a final jab. “I can understand the rationale that if things go against a team or the two drivers, I can get quite emotional in the moment and Christian has his own way of dealing with it,” he said.

He also emphasised just how intense the title fight had been, and that with so much at stake it was only to be expected that there would be friction between the protagonists.

“It is just this fight for the trophy, one of the most important prizes in sport. That is why you can’t expect a lot of schmoozing between the drivers, team principals and the team.”

Adjustments

The Yas Marina circuit has undergone several adjustments including the removal of two chicanes to be replaced with faster corners in an attempt to improve the chances of passing at the circuit, which has often presented a procession in the past.

Given its first test as the verbal sparring began to die down it was Verstappen who took the early advantage on the track. He was quickest in first practice, from the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas with Hamilton in third, three-tenths down.

However, in the more representative evening running, taking place at the same time as the race is scheduled, Hamilton and Mercedes were firmly on the front foot. Having won the last three races with a dominant turn of pace, Hamilton was flying in Abu Dhabi. Three-tenths up on Esteban Ocon in second and six-tenths clear of Verstappen in fourth, this was just the preparation the world champion required.

– Guardian