After the first two practice sessions yesterday, Ricciardo suggested that the half-second deficit to Mercedes was genuine, but today Red Bull really got things together and, as Hamilton struggled after losing track time with his off in FP2, the cars from Milton Keynes hit their stride.
Rosberg lapped in 1m 20.261s on the supersoft Pirelli tyres, but Verstappen’s great lap of 1m 20.623s put him right on the German’s tail and handily ahead of Ricciardo, who had previously headed him all the way through. The Australian’s lap of 1m 20.726s left him third ahead of Hamilton, on 1m 20.769s.
The world champion pushed hard throughout, had a seat change when his first one started to overheat, and even tried a fresh set of supersofts right at the end, but Turns 4 and 5 continually outfoxed him as he ran wide there several times and lost crucial time.
Behind him, Kimi Raikkonen was Ferrari’s faster runner on 1m 20.859s as Sebastian Vettel ran into the same sort of handling trouble that was hampering Hamilton and could not better 1m 21.185s for sixth after several ‘offs’ of his own.
Fernando Alonso continued McLaren’s strong performance here with seventh fastest time of 1m 21.584s to head Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, who was using the only new floor the team had been able to get ready in time; the Finn lapped in 1m 21.649s for eighth. Force India ran most of the session on the medium tyres, but at the end Sergio Perez jumped to ninth on supersofts with 1m 21.672s. Team mate Nico Hulkenberg was only 17th, after a run-in late in the session with Renault’s Kevin Magnussen prevented him from exploiting the softer rubber.
Jolyon Palmer’s patience in dealing with yesterday’s vexing fuel pressure problems was rewarded amply when the Briton had his best run yet in F1 to take 10th for Renault on 1m 21.935s just ahead of Williams’ Felipe Massa who retained the new front wing he tried yesterday for a lap of 1m 21.975s. Magnussen was the last runner below 1m 22s, with 1m 21.989s for 12th.
Again, many drivers ran wide in Turns 4, 5 and 11 in particular, and race director Charlie Whiting issued a note to all the teams that the FIA will adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ philosophy to cars leaving the track in Turns 4 and 11. This will be measured by timing loops in the kerbs which will register whenever a car is more than 20 cm beyond the white lines. Every lap by a driver who violates track limits will be deleted.
In the race, any driver doing this three times will be shown the black and white ‘under observation’ flag, and a fourth indiscretion may trigger a drive-through penalty.