As the final race weekend of the season began, Verstappen was 0.341 seconds quicker than Russell, who won the Sao Paulo Grand Prix last weekend.
World champion Verstappen sat out the first session so Red Bull could comply with the rules governing young driver testing and give Liam Lawson a run but was immediately up to pace in the second.
He was fastest both on the single-lap qualifying simulation runs and on the later race simulations, when cars run with full tanks.
In those, Russell was about 0.3secs off Verstappen, with Leclerc’s Ferrari a further 0.5secs adrift. Hamilton’s run was disrupted by traffic but appeared on a similar performance level to Russell’s.
“The car was in a good window – no real problems,” said Verstappen. “We tried as few things and also in the long run the car was working quite well. I am pretty happy with that.”
Hamilton said it was “expected” that Red Bull would be quicker than them this weekend, adding: “We didn’t expect this to be our strongest race. But we are generally right there and hopefully we can put on a good fight.”
Russell echoed his team-mate’s view, saying: “It felt fast but Red Bull just had the legs on us – 0.2secs ahead on single lap and on the long run maybe further. But compared to Ferrari we look reasonable.
“I’d like to think we can fight for the top three in qualifying and who knows where that can take us on Sunday?”
Unrest surrounds fight for second place
Leclerc is competing for second place in the drivers’ championship with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, who was fifth quickest from Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz.
The pair are tied on points so whoever finishes the grand prix ahead will clinch the position.
It seems a meagre prize for Leclerc after his early season promise collapsed in a torrent of Ferrari errors and reliability failures, but two separate team orders disputes last weekend in Brazil revealed that both cared.
Ferrari decided against swapping their cars on the final lap in Brazil after they had agreed they would on race morning.
But Leclerc’s disappointment about that was nothing compared to the eruption at Red Bull when Verstappen refused an order to let Perez by for sixth place.
Verstappen’s refusal, and his subsequent admission that he acted in that way bay because of “something that happened in the past”, has dominated the race weekend in Abu Dhabi so far.
Verstappen continues to refuse to say what his problem is, but multiple sources have said that he believes Perez crashed deliberately in the closing stages of Monaco Grand Prix qualifying.
That prevented the Dutchman improving his time and securing a place on the front row, leaving him fourth on the grid behind Perez, who went on to win the race.
The situation has created an internal crisis at Red Bull. Verstappen says he made his feelings clear at the previous race in Mexico, and the team have admitted to mistakes in handling the race in Brazil, in a statement that included factual inaccuracies about the events of the race.
One of those mistakes was not to discuss with Verstappen before the race that they wanted him to help Perez, which he says he will do this weekend if the situation arises.
Sources within Red Bull say that Perez has admitted he crashed deliberately in Monaco to team management. But the Mexican himself says that information is “wrong”.
The two men insist the situation is behind them and Perez said he regretted some of the things he had said about Verstappen after the race.
Vettel prepares to say farewell as rookies earn chance to shine
The first practice session featured a number of young drivers being given opportunities under F1’s testing rules.
Lawson was fastest in fifth place in the Red Bull, ahead of the Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel, who is racing in his last grand prix before retirement.
Vettel has asked everyone on F1 – teams and media – to join him for a photo on Saturday evening after qualifying, before running or walking a lap of the track.
Just one proud Dad 🥰
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 18, 2022
Robert Schwarzmann was seventh fastest in Sainz’s Ferrari ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas and Williams driver Alex Albon.
Logan Sargeant, who will graduate to F1 with Williams next year if he secures sufficient license points in the Formula 2 finale this weekend, was 15th in the Williams.
And IndyCar star Patricio O’Ward was 18th in the McLaren, after his session was disrupted with an early problem, followed by Jack Doohan in Fernando Alonso’s Alpine and Felipe Drugovich in Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin.