Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was the surprise leader in Saturday afternoon’s final practice for the 2017 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, pipping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to the top slot by a tenth of a second. Friday pacesetter Sebastian Vettel was third, half a second down on Verstappen.
The rest of the top eight was incredibly close, with less than two-tenths of a second covering them. In fact, just 2.223s separated the entire field.
It wasn’t a bad session for Red Bull, though Verstappen complained of a problem with third gear, and team mate Daniel Ricciardo didn’t get out until well into the final 30 minutes, and was seventh on 1m 32.809s.
It wasn’t bad for Mercedes either, with Hamilton second and Valtteri Bottas at one stage fastest and an eventual fourth on 1m 32.754s.
Nor for Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel was right in there, on 1m 32.750s, and Kimi Raikkonen fifth on 1m 32.785s.
So what gives? Why the closeness? How did Felipe Massa get his Williams into sixth, on 1m 32.801s, or Nico Hulkenberg his Renault into eighth, on 1m 32.933s?
One engineering insider suggested that the times may still be way off Hamilton’s 1m 29.493s 2016 pole time because of the high track and ambient temperatures - the windy session started in 38/34 degrees Celsius track and air temperature respectively, and ended in 36/34. And because the new cars have so much straight-line drag that it saps terminal velocity.
All of this made for an exciting FP3 session, and may see qualifying much closer than usual unless the onset of dusk sees the temperatures drop significantly.
But it was fun while such a close session lasted, unless you were Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman had a tough afternoon, complaining of inconsistent understeer before oversteering out of Turn 4 and smacking into the wall on the way to Turn 5. He took his Haas VF-17’s front wing off and caused a seven-minute red flag stoppage as the debris was cleaned up, but got going again later on. Then he complained of lack of power.