TOP FORM: Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time during the first free practice session for the 2014 Abu Dhabi GP.Image: AFP / Karim Sahib
ABU DHABI, UAE - Championship leader Lewis Hamilton struck a psychological blow with the fastest time in Friday's first practice for Formula 1's Abu Dhabi title decider.
The Briton, chasing his second title, was 0.133 quicker than Mercedes team mate and rival Nico Rosberg with a lap of 1min43.476 on an afternoon that again saw the sport's dominant team in a class of its own.
Spaniard Fernando Alonso, preparing for his last race with Ferrari, was third quickest but a massive 1.7 seconds off Hamilton's pace.
Sunday's race is likely to reflect the title battle, with the two Mercedes drivers in a duel of their own while the rest scrap for the leftovers.
Hamilton leads his German team mate by 17 points but he can take nothing for granted, with double points on offer for the first time in the sport's history and mechanical failure the biggest fear.
The 2008 champion need only finish second, however, to claim the title even if Rosberg wins.
With Mercedes on course for a record 16 wins in a single season, having already notched up an unprecedented 11 1-2 finishes, that looks entirely likely barring a nightmare retirement.
Red Bull's quadruple champion Sebastian Vettel, 2013's winner, was fourth fastest as he gears up for a farewell to his team before taking Alonso's place at Ferrari.
Britain's Jenson Button, who could be racing for the last time in F1, was only 17th for McLaren after car troubles meant he got in only eight laps.
"Great to see @MercedesAMGF1 has a lot of competition here in Abu Dhabi," Button said sarcastically on Twitter as he watched proceedings on the television monitors. "1.7 second gap!"
Williams saw both cars of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas shed bodywork in incidents that curtailed their running while the team investigated.
The first session also saw less familiar names in action, with Britain's Will Stevens slowest of all as he prepared for a race debut with administrator-run Caterham.
The team had missed the last two races and has returned in the hope of finding a buyer to keep them on the road.
Chinese racer Adderley Fong made his debut at a race weekend for Sauber, completing 25 laps and ending up 19th. France's Esteban Ocon was in Romain Grosjean's Lotus for the first session and was 16th fastest. Stay with Wheels24 for the 2014 Abu Dhabi GP finale this weekend.
1st Free Practice session at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit
1 Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes 1min43.476
2 Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes 1min43.609
3 Fernando Alonso (Spain) Ferrari 1min45.184
4 Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Red Bull - Renault 1min45.334
5 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull - Renault 1min45.361
6 Jean-Eric Vergne (France) Toro Rosso - Renault 1min45.718
7 Daniil Kvyat (Russia) Toro Rosso - Renault 1min45.835
8 Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Williams-Mercedes 1min45.913
9 Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India - Mercedes 1min45.983
10 Nico Hulkenberg (Germany) Force India - Mercedes 1min46.030
11 Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) McLaren 1min46.049
12 Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari 1min46.131
13 Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams-Mercedes 1min46.549
14 Esteban Gutierrez (Mexico) Sauber - Ferrari 1min46.556
15 Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela) Lotus - Renault 1min46.711
16 Esteban Ocon (France) Lotus - Renault 1min47.066
17 Jenson Button (Britain) McLaren 1min47.235
18 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) Caterham - Renault 1min47.971
19 Adderly Fong (Hong Kong) Sauber - Ferrari 1min48.269
20 Will Stevens (Britain) Caterham - Renault 1min50.684