VT3 report | Mercedes offers Hamilton best tickets for qualifying, Verstappen P2

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Formula 1 has now left the very last free practice of 2021 behind. After a mixed Friday, it was up to the Formula 1 teams to dot the i’s on Saturday before entering qualifying. Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton succeeded best. The Briton set the fastest time of the session in the W12 and seems to be heading for pole position later today.

However, it was Max Verstappen who seemed more eager during the third free practice. After an installation lap, the two Mercedes went back into the garages, Red Bull immediately introduced Verstappen to Saturday’s circuit. On the medium band he set the fastest time in the opening phase, after which he continued to drive. Only Kimi Raikkonen, Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel reported briefly in that opening phase.

After almost fifteen minutes, the two black Mercedes rushed onto the track like predators. With the softest set of tires under the W12, Valtteri Bottas and teammate Hamilton attacked the Dutchman’s fastest time. In the first sector Hamilton was already able to parry Verstappen’s fastest sector time, and the rest of his lap was also good. In this way he knocked the Limburger off the first place. His Finnish colleague caught on about four tenths of the time of Verstappen, but passed him not much later in the time table.

This made it seem as if Mercedes was experimenting with the set-up, and found the right one with Hamilton. His mini-sectors mostly turned purple, which means that he was improving lap after lap, while Bottas had less pace on the soft tyre. It is possible that Mercedes went for a long run with the wingman on the softest set of tires. Sergio Pérez, Verstappen’s teammate, immediately found a connection and also managed to be faster than Bottas on the medium tire.

Hamilton shows true pace

Hamilton showed his true pace throughout the session. At one point, with a very strong lap, he put teammate Bottas on the same tire compound no less than seven tenths behind. And that in a car on which probably no tokens have been spent over the winter break. Will Buxton released suggestions in the paddock that Mercedes spent its tokens on a new nose, but it failed the crash test. Thus, it seems that Mercedes has driven a whole year without major changes to the car, and is still able to take the world title.

Behind the two top teams, it was AlphaTauri that stood out. Pierre Gasly was fifth with 25 minutes left, followed by teammate Yuki Tsunoda. Whatever the Italian team did after Friday, it worked, because even Ferrari didn’t have the pace to keep up with them. Alpine, having started the weekend so well, fell outside the top ten again. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were unable to replicate Friday’s strong results, but that could also be due to the fact that the French team only ran long runs.

Verstappen’s rear wing

In the last twenty minutes of the session, it was mainly Mercedes that made progress from the two top teams. Hamilton and Bottas kept stamping, putting Pérez and Verstappen one and a half seconds behind. Although Hamilton had enough balance problems, the W12 really seems to be the dominant car. So that will be a tough afternoon for Red Bull. In an attempt to find out the Red Bull’s true qualifying pace, Verstappen was briefly sent onto the track on the soft tyre.

He had to abort the first lap: not enough grip at the front. The second round didn’t go well either. On his third lap on the softs, he was successful, he narrowed the gap to Hamilton by two tenths, but was unable to get past. With that, it is his British title rival who seems to be going into qualifying with the advantage. It will be the most important qualifying session of the year, because if Verstappen wants to have a chance against Hamilton on Sunday, he has to be in it after Turn 1.

Ferrari and Williams find time

Ferrari and Williams seem to have found a lot of time after Friday. Carlos Sainz was third for a long time and thus showed that the pace of the Ferrari is better than on Friday. Then the team from Maranello got no further than two spots low in the top ten. On Sunday, Charles Leclerc and Sainz could just compete for points again. If something happens at the front of the grid, there could even be podium places up for grabs.

Williams also did well in VT3. George Russell led Nicholas Latifi with just over ten minutes left. The Briton, who is in his last race for Williams for now, finished the session in P11, but with a bit of luck could take points in his last race. Latifi also has a strong eye on Yas Marina Circuit, the Canadian was only a tenth of the time behind his teammate, and that while he often has to rely on it at weekends in battle with his talented colleague.

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