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What’s more, Red Bull and Ferrari appeared very close to the Silver Arrows on long run pace, raising the prospect of a three-way battle for victory on Sunday.
In another session held under bright blue skies, Valtteri Bottas was 0.228s slower than his team-mate in the sister Mercedes, while fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen all but matched his compatriot in the lead Ferrari.
Bottas and Raikkonen weren’t only close in the times – they were called to the stewards after the Ferrari driver unintentionally impeded his Mercedes counterpart, causing him to take a trip through the Turn 3 gravel. No action was deemed necessary.
Bottas was one of several men to push the limits of the Albert Park circuit, as the teams got down to some serious qualifying-type runs on Pirelli’s quickest ultrasoft tyres. Force India’s Esteban Ocon went off at the same corner, while Carlos Sainz took his Renault for an excursion at Turn 13.
Sebastian Vettel again gave best to Ferrari team-mate Raikkonen as he secured fifth, but the biggest surprise of the session - if you could call it that after their impressive pre-season pace - was the speed of the similarly-powered Haas cars. Romain Grosjean was sixth for the American squad, with team-mate Kevin Magnussen ninth.
Daniel Ricciardo finished seventh for Red Bull, the Australian having had to abort his ultrasoft effort thanks to a brief red-flag stoppage caused by debris on the main straight, while it was another encouraging session for McLaren, with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne eighth and 10th respectively.
Less happy was Lance Stroll, who was forced to abandon his Williams on track thanks to technical issues as the chequered flag fell, leaving the Canadian 14th in the times.
The big question mark now is the weather. After Friday’s glorious sunshine, very different conditions are expected for qualifying on Saturday. Wet-weather tyres at the ready!