George Russell thinks Mercedes will potentially be a few tenths of a second per lap slower than Red Bull on race pace at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
That would mark a significant change from Brazil the previous weekend when Russell led home Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes one-two.
It was the first F1 win of the Briton’s career and of his team’s season, but the 24-year-old suspects the balance will be tipped back towards Red Bull at Yas Marina due to the characteristics of the circuit.
Russell was speaking after FP2 in which he had set the second fastest time, 0.341sec behind Max Verstappen who had sat out FP1 so Liam Lawson could fulfil the rookie driver practice session requirement for Red Bull.
In FP1, Hamilton had topped the standings ahead of Russell as Mercedes’ Interlagos form continued seamlessly.
“I think we had a very strong day in terms of what we’ve learned,” Russell told reporters at the end of Friday’s running.
“We did quite a lot of test items, especially on my side, in FP1, looking ahead to 2023 and this is one of our last opportunities to test.
“FP2, obviously a cooler track temperature, the track changed completely and it felt fast out there.
“But I think Red Bull just had the legs on us [over] a single lap, probably two tenths ahead, long run maybe even further. So we’ve a little bit of work to do overnight.
“We know Red Bull have a really slippery car down the straights, very efficient, and on a circuit like this with two long straights and lots of slow-speed corners it kind of suits them down to a tee.
“So – please – we are much closer than we were let’s say at Spa, where it’s not too dissimilar.
“I’d like to think we can fight for the top three in qualifying and who knows where that can take us on Sunday.”
Russell said he had also felt a difference in the car of the air temperature, given the Abu Dhabi season finale is taking place a few weeks earlier than usual this year to avoid a clash with football’s World Cup.
“It felt hot in the car, I must say,” commented Russell. “I don’t think this is necessarily one of the most physical tracks of the year, but we were pushing out there and it got the heart rate pumping.
“It’s probably five degrees hotter than it has been here for the last five or six years for the last race of the season. Definitely there’s a slight change there.
Hamilton said adjustments he had made between sessions did not have the desired effect as he slipped from first in FP1 to fourth in FP2.
“P1 was pretty good, P2 the balance was quite a bit off,” said the seven-time former World Champion.
“I made some changes between [sessions] one and two which weren’t the right ones. Otherwise we were relatively competitive, we were right there.
“I think it looks a bit closer. I think the Red Bulls will be a bit quicker here, which was expected. We didn’t expect this to be our strongest race.”