Russell, dubbed ‘Mr Saturday’ due to his unbeaten qualifying streak against his team-mates since arriving in Formula 1 in 2019, now found himself quickest in both practice sessions in a W11 car he is finding to be a tight squeeze given he is taller than the absent Lewis Hamilton.
Russell posted a 54.713 to top the Friday night timesheet by a tenth to Max Verstappen in P2. Narrowly behind was Sergio Perez in P3 and Valtteri Bottas found himself down in P11 after seeing lap times deleted and runs aborted for continuing to exceed track limits at Turn 8.
Pietro Fittipaldi, one of two drivers making their Formula 1 debuts this weekend alongside Jack Aitken, was quick out of the blocks for the second practice session, eager to make up for lost time after flat-spotting his second set of tyres early into FP1.
The biggest problem in the early stages for some drivers were those pesky red and white kerbs, with Aitken and Vettel have nervy moments on their first push laps.
Lando Norris was also having issues, reporting via team radio that he had picked up “a lot of floor damage” from the aggressive kerbs.
He went back to the garage and stayed in the car whilst it was propped up on the stands for a closer look. Also up on the stands was the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc with a confirmed driveshaft problem. That was, in fact, game over for the Monegasque with still over an left to run in the session.
📻 Leclerc: "Something broke"
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 4, 2020
Ahead of the qualifying simulation runs, Verstappen was top of the timesheet with a 55.043 but even he wasn’t having the most enjoyable experience on the Outer Track as he reported that his car was “hopping” through Turn 1, just like it was last week in the first race weekend at Bahrain.
Vettel kicked off the qualifying sim runs and promptly spun for a second time in the session with Kevin Magnussen having to back off behind him in order to avoid a collision.
Near miss! 😬
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 4, 2020
Bottas then lowered the benchmark to a 54.506, well, that was until he had his lap time deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 8. His temporary team-mate, Russell, pumped in a legitimate 54.713 to sit top of the standings.
Perez and Verstappen closed up to within a tenth of Russell, but the latter and his team-mate Albon complained of having “so much understeer” on their latest attacking laps.
Bottas, meanwhile, was still trying to find the right limit at Turn 8 as he once again went too wide and subsequently backed out of the rest of the lap.
It looked like Bottas was winding up for one last crack but he dived into the pits ahead of the race simulation programmes and ensured he would finish the day’s running in a rather unrepresentative P11.
During the race sims, there was an issue on the other side of the McLaren garage this time for Carlos Sainz as he lost synchronisation with his gearbox.
There was also a painful moment for Pierre Gasly as a piece of flying gravel caught him on the finger. Hopefully nothing broken!
While much will be made over Russell beating Bottas in both Friday sessions, the AWS prediction graphic (yes, we know, big pinch of salt) has the Finn taking pole ahead of Bottas by 0.28s based on FP2 sector times and car data analysis.
Guess we will find out on Saturday in what promises to be a chaotic qualifying session given the short nature of the circuit and track space at an absolute premium. Bring it on…
1 George Russell Mercedes 0:54.713 S
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull 0.128s S
3 Sergio Perez Racing Point 0.153s S
4 Esteban Ocon Renault 0.227s S
5 Alex Albon Red Bull 0.323s S
6 Daniil Kvyat AlphaTauri 0.355s S
7 Lance Stroll Racing Point 0.391s S
8 Daniel Ricciardo Renault 0.411s S
9 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 0.420s S
10 Carlos Sainz McLaren 0.545s S
11 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 0.608s H
12 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Racing 0.771s S
13 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing 0.820s S
14 Kevin Magnussen Haas 1.025s S
15 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1.071s S
16 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1.117s M
17 Lando Norris McLaren 1.318s M
18 Pietro Fittipaldi Haas 1.397s S
19 Jack Aitken Williams 1.547s S
20 Charles Leclerc Ferrari