Verstappen lays down the gauntlet in FP3
By Mat Coch
Sunday 28th March, 2021 - 12:19am
Max Verstappen has sent a clear signal of intent ahead of qualifying for this weekend’s Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Dutchman recorded a stonking lap in the final 10 minutes of Free Practice 3 to lay his cards on the table.
His lap, a 1:30.577, crushed an earlier effort by Lewis Hamilton by more than 0.7s.
As it had done on Friday, and during pre-season testing, the Red Bull looked far more settled, though Mercedes had clearly made progress on the opening day’s running.
AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda was the first driver on track, having the circuit to himself in the opening minutes.
Track temperatures had soared to nearly 50 degrees, far higher than expected for qualifying.
As such, teams were in no rush; Tsunoda the only car to venture out in the first 10 minutes as he competed a systems check after AlphaTauri broke curfew overnight repairing an undisclosed problem in the car.
Ending the lull was Valtteri Bottas, who completed a slow out lap before heading off on a timed effort.
That was abandoned in the braking zone of the first corner when he ran deep and off the road.
He did complete the lap and embark on another, as Fernando Alonso headed out on track.
Bottas was clearly ill at ease in the car, struggling to slow it while suffering a big snap of oversteer through the Turn 5/6 complex.
He recorded a 1:33.372, some way away from the pace seen on the opening day’s running, though it mattered little as the time was deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 4.
Charles Leclerc also struggled to get into Turn 1, the wind chasing cars down the front straight.
On his first lap the Ferrari driver ran long while next time around he had a harmless pirouette to draw the yellow flag.
“The grip is incredibly low,” he reported back to the team.
While Bottas was struggling, Lewis Hamilton’s experience was visibly different in the sister Mercedes.
Midway through the session, the track became far busier, with every driver having completed at least an installation lap.
Bottas’ woes continued with three lap times deleted for track limits, which officially left him towards the foot of the timesheets without a representative time in the middle of the session.
Max Verstappen again topped affairs, a 1:32.617 moving him 0.280s ahead of Hamilton with Lando Norris again nipping at the duo’s heels.
Sitting sixth at the 30-minute marker was Antonio Giovinazzi for Alfa Romeo, shadowed by team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.
Also showing well, again, was AlphaTauri as Pierre Gasly leapt to second fastest with a 1:32.739.
He duly improved that to go fastest, his 1:32.321 moving him 0.296s clear of Verstappen.
As Gasly banked that lap, Sebastian Vettel was forced back into the garage after his Aston Martin shed a component on track.
Replays showed something from the front left of the car broke free, striking him in the visor.
Inside the final 20 minutes, Mercedes turned up the wick.
Hamilton banked a 1:31.316 on a set of soft tyres to shoot 0.539s clear of team-mate Bottas at the top of the standings.
Verstappen’s earlier best had seen him tumble to sixth, and Gasly to fourth, as Carlos Sainz and Leclerc also got in on the action for Ferrari.
It triggered a flurry of qualifying simulations, with Verstappen heading out on a new set of soft compound tyres.
His Red Bull team-mate, Sergio Perez, had already been on track, banking the third best time behind the Mercedes duo.
Verstappen’s out lap was almost comically slow as he worked to bleed tyre pressure before starting his timed effort.
A good run through the opening complex and Turn 4 saw him go fastest of anyone to the first split.
The RB16B was then composed through the changes of direction and heavy braking in the middle of the lap to maintain his advantage.
He stopped the clock at 1:30.577, a strong lap which pushed him more than 0.7s clear of the chasing pack.
The session ended with the Dutchman fastest from Hamilton, Gasly slotting into third from Bottas, Perez, Sainz (on a set of mediums), Raikkonen, Esteban Ocon, Lance Stroll, and Daniel Ricciardo.
With no further running prior to qualifying it was a glimpse into the potential the Red Bull possesses.
It also allowed a more ready comparison with Mercedes, which seems to trail the Christian Horner-led team, while AlphaTauri could well prove the surprise package ahead of McLaren in next best.
Qualifying for the Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix gets underway at 02:00 AEDT this morning.