SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton prepared for an emotional farewell to McLaren with the fastest time in practice for the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix on Friday.
The Briton, who took his 2008 Formula One title at Interlagos and arrived in Brazil after winning the U.S. Grand Prix in Texas last Sunday, lapped the anti-clockwise layout with a best time of one minute 14.131 seconds in sunny but hazy morning conditions.
The 27-year-old, who joins Mercedes next season, then lapped in 1:14.026 in the heat of the afternoon.
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, the championship leader who is favourite to clinch his third successive title on Sunday, was second fastest in both sessions.
He was just 0.009 off Hamilton’s pace before lunch and 0.274 slower after the break.
However, the 25-year-old German set his morning time on this year’s Pirelli tyres while Hamilton’s came in a test of next year’s prototype rubber.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, Vettel’s only title rival but 13 points off the lead, was fifth on both timesheets - 0.261 and 0.566 slower respectively than the quickest McLaren.
Hamilton, who welled up with emotion in a BBC interview earlier in the week, said he was savouring every moment of the weekend.
”I just took some pictures of my engineers. I’ll take some pictures of my mechanics later on today and I said we have to take a picture every day,“ he told reporters after practice. ”This is one of the best Fridays we’ve had for a long, long time. It’s a perfect last Friday to have.
“I feel very good at the moment. we’re definitely strong, just as we were in the last three or four races,” said the Briton.
“But here is so tough on the tyres. I hope that we can continue to compete with them (Red Bull) tomorrow. That would be the best Saturday to have a pole, for sure.”
Vettel said the track had been very slippery but was happy with his day’s work.
“It was quite hot today and, in terms of track conditions, not that easy,” he said.
Australian Mark Webber was third in the morning and afternoon while McLaren’s Jenson Button was fourth in the first session. Alonso’s Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa was fourth after lunch.
Spaniard Alonso must finish on the podium on Sunday to have any hope of taking his third title while Vettel will be champion regardless of other results if he can secure fourth place or better.
“We have not yet found the ideal balance on the car, so there is still a lot of work to be done with the engineers going into the rest of the weekend,” said the Spaniard, mindful also that the weather is expected to turn wet at the weekend.
“Our targets are clear but also difficult to achieve.”
Hamilton has raced for McLaren for all of his Formula One career and could face a barren spell at Mercedes, a team that has been largely uncompetitive this year with their only highlight Nico Rosberg’s win in China.
The Briton acknowledged after arriving in Brazil that Sunday’s race could be his last chance in a while to stand on top of the podium but Mercedes did their best to give him some hope on Friday.
Michael Schumacher, the seven-times world champion who is retiring for the second time on Sunday to make way for Hamilton at Mercedes, was sixth in the second session ahead of Rosberg with Button eighth.
The 43-year-old German had a special message for his fans on his helmet: “Life is about passions, thank you for sharing mine.” (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Mark Meadows and Justin Palmer)