Saturday afternoon saw another eventful - and close - practice session for the 2017 Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Jolyon Palmer’s Renault went up in flames, Sebastian Vettel hit early technical woes at Ferrari, and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull ground to a halt late in the hour. At the end of it all, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas led the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen by just 0.095s.
Lewis Hamilton backed Bottas up in third, four-tenths down on his team mate, closely followed by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, Force India’s Esteban Ocon, Friday pacesetter Verstappen, and Williams’ Felipe Massa – who was very lucky to survive a brush with the walls at Turn 8, where the kerbs were lowered overnight following Friday’s crashes.
Lance Stroll put in another strong showing for Williams around the Baku City Circuit, taking ninth place behind the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat. Sergio Perez completed the top ten in the second Force India.
The session, which gave a clearer picture of the pecking order, began with unwelcome drama for Palmer. The beleaguered Briton really needed a trouble-free session after his Friday shunt; instead, his Renault ground to a halt on fire in Turn 2 right at the start, leaving him 20th.
After Kvyat opened the batting on supersoft tyres with 1m 47.722s, Bottas quickly put Mercedes ahead on Pirelli’s soft rubber, and after a brief response from the Russian the Finn kept pushing hard to set the pace with 1m 43.720s, as Force India and Williams chased on the supersofts.
Hamilton had a spell up front on supersofts with 1m 43.348s to Bottas’s 1m 43.647s and then 1m 43.430s on the same rubber, as Verstappen put Red Bull into contention with 1m 43.614s for third.
Bottas later improved to 1m 43.057s, was momentarily displaced as Raikkonen launched a lap in 1m 42.837s with 12 minutes to run, then regained the top slot with 1m 42.742s to rule by 0.095s.
Hamilton did not improve sufficiently and was left third on 1m 43.158s, but Verstappen’s counter-attack ended after two green first sectors when his RB13 stopped on the main straight when “everything just shut down.” Earlier he had complained of some “weird” sounds from his upgraded Renault engine as it neared the limiter.
Ricciardo subsequently improved to 1m 43.287s to put Red Bull fourth, as Ocon also went quicker than Verstappen’s best lap with 1m 43.344s for Force India.
Massa was seventh as Williams sandwiched Kvyat when Lance Stroll moved into the top 10 with 1m 44.040s. The Canadian later went down the escape road in Turn 2, but was not alone in doing so.
There were fewer incidents than yesterday, but the conundrum of setting up cars to run quickly on the straights while having sufficient downforce in the slow corners remained, as did keeping tyres and brakes in their right operating windows. Haas’s Romain Grosjean, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, Kvyat, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen all had moments, Magnussen spinning into the Turn 2 escape road not long before his team mate also spun in Turn 1.
As Perez rounded out the top 10 in the second Force India, it was a mixed session for Sebastian Vettel who wound up only 12th for Ferrari. He can be expected to be in the battle for pole later this evening, but soon after going fifth fastest on supersofts with 1m 44.344s just after the half-hour mark, the German was instructed to pit with suspected hydraulic issues on his SF70H.
The session brought further bad news for McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, 14th and 16th fastest respectively. Additional changes to elements of their Honda power units mean Alonso will now drop 40 grid places and his team mate 30.
Sainz is the other man who goes into qualifying with a grid penalty - three places for causing the lap-one crash last time out in Canada. The FP3 times suggest that session will be a very close-run thing between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.