Sebastian Vettel was fastest of Free Practice 1 and Valtteri Bottas was the quickest of Free Practice 2. Many wondered whether Lewis Hamilton would conclude Free Practice 3 at the top... No one could have predicted what actually happened.
Free Practice 3 is usually a very peculiar session in that it only lasts an hour and teams are keen to a) not damage the car (no shock there) and b) not reveal their hand to their opponent. So, who would ‘push it’ and give the crowd a good show with fast lap times…expectation was low and the mood was distinctly quiet.
It was quiet in the media center though because news was in that Mercedes and Red Bull have been ordered to change their front wing designs from this point and for tomorrow’s race.
Speculation was rife as to what the reason was and Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport had reported that a cut-out at the top of the endplate on the new Mercedes concept doesn’t adhere to the rule that all main elements of the front wing must not be visible when viewed from the side.
However, other journalists have said that at the FIA’s request AMG Mercedes Petronas and Red Bull Aston Martin Racing were requested to change the front edges of their endplates to prevent puncturing other cars’ tyres. As a result, both teams will have to now revert back to an old specification or do some very quick and legal adaptations) in a matter of hours ahead of qualifying.
That was rather dramatic, however, Free Practice 3 is not always riveting stuff and such a lethargic approach was represented in the main grandstand which was as full as it had been for yesterday’s sessions…and that doesn’t say much. Also choosing to be in no rush to the proceedings was Lewis Hamilton who was busy in the pits taking photos for the fans clamouring towards him. Meanwhile, George Russell had chosen to jump in a car and put some laps in and was sitting at the top with 1:36.630…probably not much longer though as Daniel Ricciardo was soon to join following his race start practice from pit lane.
Daniil Kvyat has not had much consistent running and this session started with Toro Rosso mechanics busily working on his car. Surely there was not a problem with his new engine – time would tell. With such little track action Daniel Ricciardo was able to momentarily hit the top before Charles Leclerc laid down a 1:34.1. Heads started to turn in the grandstand to the right when Sebastian Vettel came into view and sure enough he would dethrone his young pretender with a time of 1:33.222 whilst running the soft compound.
With the half way stage of the morning session reached, the Mercedes pair were off the pace…or were they? Despite being 2nd and 3rd…they were running the medium compound so were they biding their time for later?
As for Red Bull, Pierre Gasly was busy understeering and running wide at many points around the SAIC Shanghai International Circuit whereas his teammate Max Verstappen had put on a set of the soft compound tyres and recorded a time 1.2 seconds off the top which sat him in fifth…definitely a position the Red Bull driver has been used to in recent years over the course of a race season.
With 20 minutes to go the top 10 was: Vettel (s) Bottas (m) Hamilton (m) Leclerc (s) Verstappen (s) Albon (s) Kvyat (s) Perez (s) Ricciardo (m) Stroll (s). With all the drivers back in the pits for a fresh set of rubber, when they next came out it was much hoped that we would see some qualifying sims.
Following Lando Norris continuing to live up to expectation jumping up to 8th place, Valtteri Bottas was out on track and with a set of soft tyres. Bottas’ confidence should be high after coming from nowhere to conclude FP2 at the top yesterday and so it continued today with him recording a time of 1:32.830 with his 11th lap of the session.
With less than 7 minutes of the session remaining, Alex Albon understeered his number 23 Toro Rosso on the penultimate corner and in doing so went through a sequence of spins, a trip in the gravel and completely obliterated the left side of his Toro Rosso. ‘Sorry guys’ was all that could be said on the radio but all the team cared about was that he was ok.
With that came the news that the session would not be restarted and so Valtteri Bottas’ time would not be beaten.
An anticlimax to a session which had very little build up but do not worry because the historic qualifying of the 1000th Grand Prix Is just a couple of hours away.