The Red Bull racer topped the first practice session on around Yas Marina Circuit with a 1m 25.009s lap
Hamilton went off three times trying to keep up on the re-configured Yas Island track.
His Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas went off twice, making it a staggering five times Mercedes had lap times wiped off
That suggests the champions as struggling to keep up with Red Bull’s opening pace. But neither team has revealed their full hand yet.
Hamilton was even bettered by Bottas, who was almost two tenths behind the Dutchman with the world champion third.
But just three-tenths of a second separated the two championship contenders who have been neck and neck all season.
There is everything to play for in the closest champion finale in nearly 50 years.
A Hamilton victory will make him the first eight-time champion in the history of the sport – finally bettering Michael Schumacher’s tally.
And he has admitted that this title would be the greatest of his collection if he manages to achieve it.
But if his young rival wins Verstappen will become world champion for the first time at 24 and the first non-Mercedes title-holder of the hybrid era.
After 21 races across four continents, the duo go into the final round of the world championship on exactly the same points.
But the Red Bull driver has the edge because he has one more win. So that means if they crash out together, which is not impossible, the result will be decided in his favour on countback of wins (9-8 to Verstappen).
On Thursday, race director Michael Masi warned the entire grid they have the authority to ban drivers from this championship and even the next, or deduct points, for any foul play.
The two title contenders collided twice at the last round in Saudi Arabia and have crashed out twice earlier in the season.
Verstappen was punished twice in Saudi Arabia last Sunday, being hit with a five second and then a 10 second penalty for what stewards deemed “erratic” braking.
In stunning scenes, Hamilton ran into the back of the Red Bull when Verstappen followed team order by braking to allow his rival past. Or so he said.
Upon their arrival in Abu Dhabi both drivers said they are hoping the championship is decided by a fair race and not in the stewards office or legal wrangling.
Even Red Bull boss Christian Horner said there was almost no difference in the speed of the two rival race machines in first practice.
“Mercedes' straight line speed has been massive since the summer break. Actually Budapest was the first time we started to see. Probably sector two belongs to Mercedes, sector 3 is Red Bull’s, and sector 1 is neutral," he said.
“It’s been too close to call all year, so no reason to think it’s not going to be close here this weekend.”
Mercedes need just 17 points to wrap up the constructors' championship.