Lewis Hamilton lost out eventually to Sebastian Vettel by just over a 10th of a second as the pair battled for superiority in practice at Yas Marina, but the 2011 race winner was satisfied that McLaren should be a closer match for Red Bull here as the world championship moves closer to its climax.
Hamilton is out of a fight that has distilled into a battle between Vettel and long-time series points leader Fernando Alonso. Each is going for a third title, and with four consecutive wins behind him the German is odds-on favourite.
But if McLaren can beat Red Bull here in Abu Dhabi, it could help Alonso as Ferrari wait for a heavy update either for the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, or the finale in Brazil a week later.
Hamilton and team-mate Jenson Button comfortably set the pace in the morning's practice session, but in the afternoon Vettel moved ahead with 1min 41.751secs.
Hamilton, ignoring advice to come into the pits, stayed out and had gone fastest until then, and then responded with 1min 41.919secs to keep Vettel honest.
Encouragingly he was the fastest driver over the long runs -- a good guide to likely race form.
"I think we can be happy," Vettel said. "Overall we got a good lap on the soft-compound tyres, but in general pace the McLarens were quick and seem competitive, so they're the ones we need to look out for and beat."
Hamilton experienced similar downshift problems to those which obliged him to change his steering wheel during his pit stop in India last weekend, and neither he nor Button was really happy with the balance of their car, but overall the team believe that they have created a "promising foundation".
"Our car looked good in the first free practice session but the second was a little bit more of a challenge for me," Hamilton said.
"It was quite tricky to get a good time from the soft-compound tyres, so we'll need to do some work around figuring out how to switch them on.
"We anticipated that Sebastian would be quick, and in the afternoon in particular, the Red Bulls duly picked up pace. But our car was quick in the morning, and very near the top of the timesheets all day, so we've got plenty to build on."
Button said his car had been working well all day. "We're certainly in better shape here than we were in India last weekend. Everything seems to be working well, and the car is fun to drive." (© Independent News Service)
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix,
Live, BBC1, Setanta Irl, tomorrow 1.0