Red Bull’s pace suggested that predictions of Mercedes struggling once again here seemed accurate, though it should be noted that unlike the top three, neither Silver Arrows driver used Pirelli’s quickest ultrasoft tyre compound to set their best time.
All the big guns went out to play straight away on the purple-marked ultrasoft rubber, and Rosberg set the pace with 1m 47.936s before Hamilton trimmed that with 1m 47.436s. Each them improved, to 1m 47.743s and 1m 47.369s respectively. So far so good for the world champions, but of course it was early days.
When Vettel did 1m 47.731s to split the Mercedes, eyebrows were raised, and as the hour approached we’d seen Verstappen (1m 47.335s on ultras), Rosberg (1m 46.513s on softs), Vettel (1m 46.287s on ultras, despite earlier scraping a wall and describing it to his crew as “just cosmetics”) and Ricciardo (1m 45.872s on ultras) and then Verstappen again (1m 45.823s on ultras) all take turns at the head of the timesheets before dusk fell. Interestingly, on softs Hamilton stayed ahead of Rosberg with 1m 46.426s as they were fourth and fifth.
With 12 minutes remaining, and everyone preparing for final runs, Rosberg got it wrong going into Turn 18. He locked up the front wheels and ran head on into the tyre wall, taking off his front wing before limping pitward with a front-left puncture.
Behind the sixth place Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen on 1m 47.185s, Carlos Sainz was an impressive seventh for Toro Rosso on 1m 46.936s, immediately ahead of team mate Daniil Kvyat, who lapped in 1m 47.683s. Felipe Massa’s Williams and Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas completed the Top 10.
Elsewhere, Jenson Button’s McLaren ground to a halt early on but was revived after being pushed back to the pits, but Romain Grosjean sat out most of the session playing cards after his Haas was hit with a suspected ERS problem.
It was a mixed session for McLaren, with Fernando Alonso clouting a wall partway through but taking 11th spot, and Button recovering for 16th.