Max Verstappen struck the first flow of the final weekend of the Fomula 1 season, setting the fastest time in Free Practice 1 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Dutchman overcame early steering bother to top title rival Lewis Hamilton, who was pushed into third by Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
The drivers were able to get their first run on a redesigned, quicker Yas Marina Circuit, with lap times significantly faster than at last year's race in the United Arab Emirates.
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Verstappen was the victor in 2020, and adapted well to the remodelled circuit, showing particular speed in the final sector, which seems set to favour Red Bull.
His best time of 1:25:009 was sufficient to lead the field at the conclusion of the hour long session, with Bottas two tenths of a second slower and Hamilton close behind his teammate, and Sergio Perez (Red Bull) also within touching distance and completing the top four.
The Finn produced a stong start with a 1:26.5, but his opening gambit was struck from the record due to track limits, a penalty also later levied against Hamilton, removing his fastest lap.
Fernando Alonso was a surprise early pace-setter, briefly topping the leaderboard, but it was soon the title chasers back producing the fastest laps and comfortably clear of the rest of the field.
The Dutchman was dealing with some issues with his steering, and returned to the pits for some adjustments as Hamilton drew nearer to his fastest lap.
But a change to a fresh set of soft tyres enabled Verstappen to return to the Yas Marina Circuit and go even quicker, and Hamilton was unable to match the 24-year-old's early weekend speed, though would have pipped Bottas but for the removal of his fastest time.
"There are a couple of corners we are struggling with," revealed Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes' Trackside Engineering Director. "There is not going to be a lot between the two teams.
"The circuit changes are definitely good, but whether it suits us, I'm not sure. We will have a chat with Lewis and Valtteri and see what we can do.
"The track was probably seven or eight degrees hotter than it is going to be for qualifying, but we are not going to see a particularly different picture. It looks pretty tight."
Free Practice 2 follows later on Friday, before Free Practice 3 precedes qualifying on Saturday 11 December.
One of the hardest-fought battles for the Drivers' Championship will then be decided a day later in Abu Dhabi, with Verstappen ahead in the event of a tie having won more races across the season.
The Dutchman is seeking his first world title and hoping to deny Hamilton a record-setting eighth crown.
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