An epic qualifying battle looks in prospect after just 0.058s covered the four Mercedes and Ferrari drivers at the end of final practice in Brazil on Saturday. Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton continued their intra-team battle, the silver cars emerging just ahead of the red ones of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, all of them nearly a second clear of the fifth-placed Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo.
The session was only 10 minutes old when Lance Stroll’s Williams rolled to a halt between Turns 6 and 7, with the Canadian reporting loss of gears. There was a three-minute virtual safety car while the stricken FW40 was wheeled away. It will receive a new engine and gearbox ahead of qualifying, the latter of which will likely mean a five-place grid penalty for Stroll.
Thereafter it was nip and tuck between the Ferraris, until Mercedes joined in, first on the soft Pirelli tyres then on the supersofts that Raikkonen and Vettel had been running.
In the end Bottas just shaded Hamilton by 0.003s, with 1m 09.281s to 1m 09.284s, while Raikkonen and Vettel were 0.045s and 0.058s adrift with 1m 09.326s and 1m 09.339s respectively.
In the cooler conditions Red Bull struggled a little. Ricciardo was their better runner in fifth on 1m 10.244s, as Max Verstappen languished in ninth place on 1m 10.495s after a late spin in the penultimate corner killed his chance of improving further.
Fernando Alonso was a superb sixth for McLaren with 1m 10.288s, and Sergio Perez narrowly headed Force India team mate Esteban Ocon, with 1m 10.322s to 1m 10.357s. Behind Verstappen, the late-improving Carlos Sainz completed the top 10 for Renault with 1m 10.599s.
The times in the midfield were also close, however, with 0.737s covering Ricciardo in fifth and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly in 16th.
Rain is still expected for qualifying even though it held off for this session, and a super-tight Q1 in particular is in prospect, while the battle for pole will be spectacular as Ferrari have made up some of the already small deficit they had to Mercedes yesterday. It remains to be seen whether Red Bull can pull themselves up again.