Russell quickest from Piastri as red flag ends Las Vegas FP3 early
By Ian Parkes
Saturday 18th November, 2023 - 4:45pm
George Russell finished quickest at the end of a final practice session for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix that ended five minutes early after Alex Albon clouted a wall.
Once Russell turned to the soft tyres, his Mercedes came alive as the Briton claimed top spot on his second push lap, only to be edged soon after by Oscar Piastri in his McLaren.
Russell was not to be denied, albeit in setting a benchmark one minute 34.093secs, he was aided by a considerable tow from Piastri’s team-mate Lando Norris through the final sector.
Piastri had to settle for finishing second on the timesheet, 0.398s down, with Williams’ Logan Sargeant a remarkable third, 0.552s back.
It was Sargeant’s team-mate Albon who brought an early end to the session by five minutes as the left-rear tyre detached itself from the wheel as he attempted to power away following his wall-hitting moment.
In the wake of what had unfolded on Thursday and in the early hours of Friday morning as F1’s new flagship event suffered an embarrassing opening day, there was relief final practice escaped relatively unscathed to set up qualifying that will start at midnight local time.
Prior to the session, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and Las Vegas GP CEO Renee Wilm had explained away events that saw a water valve cover damage the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon’s Alpine before FP2 was run in front of empty grandstands.
They were at least filled again for FP3, although it took time for the drivers to warm to their task, and to again clean the track as they had done originally in the 90-minute second practice that partly compensated for the red-flagged opener.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and team-mate Sainz had set the pace, with the Monégasque leading the way with a lap of 1:35.265s at the end of a session that finished at 4am.
It was Sainz, hit with a 10-place grid penalty for a replacement energy store damaged by him running over the water-valve cover and its concrete seal exploding beneath his SF23, who set the first notable time in final practice of 1:35.939s.
Leclerc soon usurped that by 0.031s, with both on the medium tyres.
After 20 minutes, Max Verstappen finally emerged from his Red Bull garage, and on softs set the fastest first sector, but had to settle for a time 0.264s slower than Leclerc.
Instead, it was team-mate Sergio Perez who raised the bar, and on the red-striped Pirellis, setting quite comfortably the fastest time of the event at that stage with a lap of 1:35.146s, three-quarters-of-a-second quicker than Leclerc.
On his next hot lap, though, Verstappen soon found his stride, becoming the first driver to dip below 95 seconds for the 6.201-kilometre track, posting a 1:34.653s, almost half-a-second up on Perez.
The surprising temperatures were certainly playing a part. At 17 degrees Celsius, whilst obviously far from the warmest this year, that was certainly far higher than the single digits that had been predicted.
Perez at least managed to get closer to Verstappen on his next tour, closing the gap to 0.215s, before Albon underlined the straight-line power of his Williams to slot in third quickest, 0.871s adrift.
With 20 minutes remaining, Lewis Hamilton and Russell were sitting at the bottom of the timesheet before turning to the softs.
Hamilton elevated himself up to sixth, albeit a staggering 1.388s behind Verstappen, whilst Russell pushed his Mercedes to third, setting the fastest final sector en route to finishing just under half-a-second down.
Hamilton had been informed that much more was expected on the second push. The seven-time champion did so by four-tenths of a second, but still just under a second down.
It was left to his team-mate to show the pace of the Mercedes as on his second push lap on the softs Russell edged Verstappen off top spot by 0.068s.
On home soil for the third time this season, Sargeant then propelled himself into second, clearly as track evolution began to ramp up in the closing stages.
That was underlined by Piastri going quickest, defying the comments from CEO Zak Brown earlier in the session that this was a track, with its long straights and slow corners, that did not suit the MCL60.
Russell, though, had the final say, although he can thank Norris for that given the tow.
Verstappen and Perez finished fourth and fifth fastest, followed by Albon, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso relegating Hamilton to eighth come the early conclusion to the session.
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, twice a spinner early on, finished ninth quickest ahead of Kevin Magnussen in his Haas who completed the top 10, the Dane 0.974s down.
At the bottom of the pile was Daniel Ricciardo in his AlphaTauri, 3.685s down.