FP3: Vettel leads Hamilton ahead of Brazil qualifying
Mercedes or Ferrari, Ferrari or Mercedes? Analysis of Friday’s running predicted a tight battle between the two teams in qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix, as they continue their fight for the 2018 constructors’ championship. But in the final free practice session, Sebastian Vettel dealt the Silver Arrows a blow, sending his Ferrari around Interlagos 0.217s faster than his closest rival Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel’s 1m 07.948s represented a new track record at the Brazilian Grand Prix venue, and bodes well for the German as he heads into qualifying. Ferrari need to outscore Mercedes by 13 points this weekend to ensure the fight in that constructors’ championship goes on until Abu Dhabi. And with Ferrari predicted to have around a 0.3s advantage over both Mercedes and Red Bull in terms of race pace, pole position could be crucial later on this afternoon if the Italian squad want to keep their hopes of bringing at least one title back to Maranello alive.
There was more potential trouble for Hamilton, too, his Mercedes W09 sending out ominous puffs of smoke at several points throughout FP3, while the British driver was consigned to his pit early on in the session as Mercedes team personnel formed a media view-blocking cavalcade around the car. The problem didn’t seem to affect his on-track performance to any great extent however.
Behind Vettel and Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas found himself around three-tenths adrift of his Mercedes team mate, having headed Free Practice 2 yesterday, while his fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen showed similar pace in the second Ferrari to go P4 around an overcast Interlagos that was nonetheless warmer than yesterday.
A tweet from Max Verstappen on Saturday morning hinted that the Red Bull driver would sacrifice qualifying in order to have a better race car on Sunday, with team mate Daniel Ricciardo likely to follow a similar strategy given that the Australian faces a five-place grid drop after changing his RB14’s turbocharger. That seemed to be borne out by their running in FP3, Verstappen going P5, some 0.785s off Vettel’s pace, with Ricciardo a further tenth back in sixth.
Best of the rest for the first time this weekend was Kevin Magnussen as Haas continued to show midfield-leading speed here, the Dane in P7 heading team mate Romain Grosjean, while Pierre Gasly used the newest Spec 3 Honda power unit to good effect, going ninth for Toro Rosso ahead of the Sauber of Charles Leclerc.
Renault continue to find themselves unable to match the pace of their fourth place rivals Haas, with Nico Hulkenberg going P11 – the German having crashed heavily in FP2 yesterday – while Carlos Sainz was down in P14. A tricky session too for Force India, Esteban Ocon their fastest runner in 12th – the Frenchman another runner with a five-place grid drop hanging over him, after his gearbox was changed yesterday – while Sergio Perez split the McLarens in a lowly 19th, the irate Mexican complaining of traffic in the final stages of the session.
Meanwhile it was a tough FP3, too, for photographers and birds, with Perez nearly running over the former when he tried to pull into the Force India pits, and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne appearing to clip an unfortunate example of Brazil’s avian wildlife with the tyre of his MCL33.
So it is Ferrari and Vettel with the upper hand going into qualifying. They know they’ve got a lot to do to keep the constructors’ title battle going to the season finale – but pole position for either of their drivers later on today will certainly help their cause.