Sebastian Vettel redressed the balance in the second free practice session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as he used his early laps on Pirelli's soft tire to set the pace ahead of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton has only ever started on the front row in Abu Dhabi and also won last year's race and started on pole for the inaugural event in 2009. But in the end it was the World Champion – on a mighty roll at the moment and seeking his fifth consecutive win – who came out on top of a mini-duel in the second 90 minutes of running on Friday.
Jenson Button was third, confirming that McLaren could be a problematic threat to Ferrari's championship challenge this weekend, while Mark Webber was fourth amid more reliability issues. Vettel's chief championship rival Fernando Alonso was only seventh fastest, some 0.8sec away from the ultimate pace.
The two Saubers were the first cars on the significantly cooler track, as temperatures dropped noticeably since the first session. While Sergio Perez set an early marker of 1m45.819s, it didn't stand for long as first Kimi Raikkonen posted a 1m44.503s and then Vettel a 1m43.323s. The Red Bull then immediately posted a 1m43.067s on the next lap.
With only 10 minutes gone, most of the field had already ventured on track, and all of them on Pirelli's mediums – this weekend's prime selection. Vettel kept improving as he then posted a 1m42.730s. He needed to, as Button fired in a 1m42.804s in the McLaren.
That duo then pitted and out came Hamilton, who also could not match Vettel, but got within 0.06sec of the Red Bull. He got even closer on the second lap (0.047sec).
Hamilton persevered, in spite of suggestions from his team that he should come in for a setup change, and kept banging in the laps. On his 10th attempt he finally moved to the front with a 1m42.095s as McLaren, just as it did in P1, looked a match for Red Bull.
That lap changed the game a bit, and while Button and then Vettel both improved again, neither was within half a second of Hamilton.
Around half-distance most switched to the soft tires, but that didn't change the order much. Once he did get heat into the tires though, Vettel suddenly found a bunch of time and went fastest on a 1m42.056s lap. And that wasn't all as he went faster still when the tires zeroed in, this time setting a 1m41.751s.
Hamilton though was still in play, and he lobbed in a 1m41.919s as if to remind Vettel to stay on his toes, but in the end he ran out of time before the soft-tire long runs became a priority. After that, Vettel's time was safe.
Vettel worked down from the low-49s into the mid-48s during his long runs, while McLaren and Alonso's Ferrari were quicker, though as ever, fuel levels made it impossible to evaluate their relative performance levels.
During this period Hamilton radioed in to inform McLaren that he was suffering a recurrence of the steering wheel issues he had in the Indian race last weekend. He was told to stay out and later was informed that he was the quickest of all through the long runs.
Ferrari's championship aspirations must have fluttered with concern after its drivers Alonso and Felipe Massa could manage only seventh and eighth. Pastor Maldonado was ninth and Perez 10th.
There were several spins and incidents, most notable of which were those of Vitaly Petrov, who rotated at Turn 8 on an in-lap and Narain Karthikeyan at the Turn 17 chicane.
Pos Driver Team Time Laps
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m41.751 33
2. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m41.919s + 0.168 33
3. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m42.412s + 0.661 35
4. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m42.466s + 0.715 21
5. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m42.500s + 0.749 33
6. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m42.532s + 0.781 27
7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m42.587s + 0.836 30
8. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m42.823s + 1.072 32
9. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m42.998s + 1.247 36
10. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m43.106s + 1.355 35
11. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m43.191s + 1.440 33
12. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m43.200s + 1.449 35
13. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m43.255s + 1.504 33
14. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m43.267s + 1.516 31
15. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m43.578s + 1.827 33
16. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m43.689s + 1.938 31
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m44.260s + 2.509 26
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m45.073s + 3.322 18
19. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m45.245s + 3.494 35
20. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m45.782s + 4.031 32
21. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m46.589s + 4.838 34
22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m46.671s + 4.920 30
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m46.707s + 4.956 25
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m47.406s + 5.655 34