Charles Leclerc made it a Spanish Grand Prix practice P1 hat-trick – but he will need to look out for Mercedes in qualifying.
Unlike in Miami last time out, Mercedes were able to back up the promise they had shown in FP2 as George Russell and Lewis Hamilton mixed it with Ferrari and Red Bull for a second consecutive day at the Circuit de Catalunya.
It now looks very much like a three-team battle for honours in round six of the World Championship, with Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen also right in the hunt for front-row positions.
The Mercedes upgrades increasingly look like they are having the desired effect as they strive to improve upon their disappointing start to the campaign.
The European early summer sun beat down on Barcelona again with clear blue skies and umbrellas needed only for shade in the grandstands, as Lando Norris was first to head out on track with a new chassis for his McLaren following damage sustained to the floor in FP2. Sainz also had a new chassis in his F1-75.
No sooner had the session begun than Pierre Gasly was climbing back out of his car in the garage with smoke emanating from the AlphaTauri, but a driver who had problems on Friday afternoon, Valtteri Bottas, was having a more productive session, among the first to set representative times in the Alfa Romeo on soft tyres.
the team has spotted an issue on @PierreGASLY’s car that needs to be investigated
this unfortunately means he won’t take part in the rest of FP3 pic.twitter.com/N6pLHTN2bo
— Scuderia AlphaTauri (@AlphaTauriF1) May 21, 2022
Twenty per cent of the session had elapsed with only five cars on the timesheet and one of them, Mick Schumacher’s Haas, then rolled back into the pits with its brakes on fire – the team’s mechanics, clad only in polo shirts and shorts, a little too close to the flames for comfort. That was the German’s running over – potentially even for qualifying too, Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz speculated.
Of the hopefuls for pole position later in the day, Ferrari were first out and Leclerc immediately took his familiar position at the top of the standings, two tenths ahead of Sainz, while Hamilton was a further second down – but without DRS, which was not working. The seven-time former World Champion was told to ‘box’ for Mercedes to sort the issue out.
Last to emerge was Verstappen with 35 minutes remaining and he split the Ferraris with Sergio Perez a close fourth, followed by a sizeable gap to Mercedes as the story of the season was playing out again at the halfway mark.
Breaking the 1:20 barrier had been the target on Friday and as both Ferraris went faster, Leclerc achieved that aim once more by going a hefty 0.357s quicker than Sainz who was just ahead of him on the road – not exactly what the home crowd would have been hoping for.
There was even worse news for the locals when Russell popped up in P2, ahead of Sainz, in the first real sign of Mercedes reproducing their eye-catching Friday form.
“I only ever want to know the fastest times,” said Hamilton over team radio, objecting to being given Russell’s sector splits. At that point, they were nearly the same thing – indeed Russell had gone ‘purple’ in sector one.
Hamilton then got within a tenth of his team-mate to suggest the pole position shootout could involve five drivers as Verstappen demoted the Mercedes duo to a still very encouraging P3 and P4 – and perhaps even six if Perez can raise his game to Jeddah qualifying level.
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1:19.772
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull 0.072s
3 George Russell Mercedes 0.148s
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 0.230s
5 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 0.357s
6 Sergio Perez Red Bull 0.488s
7 Lando Norris McLaren 0.631s
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas 0.874s
9 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo 1.009s
10 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1.110s
11 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1.138s
12 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1.172s
13 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1.209s
14 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo 1.429s
15 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1.677s
16 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1.748s
17 Alex Albon Williams 1.800s
18 Nicholas Latifi Williams 2.647s
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 5.695s
20 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri No time