November 30, 2021

Valtteri Bottas drives the point home

It is still daylight when the third free practice session of the Qatar Grand Prix begins, the last of the weekend. As usual, the teams will prepare for qualifying but these will take place at night, in different conditions and with cooler temperatures.

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Logically, Nikita Mazepin is the first to take to the track. Due to an aggressive passage on a vibrator in EL1, the Russian had to change the chassis which deprived him of driving in EL2. But the unfortunate pilot only traveled twenty meters before coming to a stop on the orders of his team, suspecting an engine problem. The red flag is presented to allow the mechanics of the American team to repatriate the car with the number 9, which may well remain in the garage during this session. Corn Haas are not the only team to get to work: Red Bull is once again taking care of the rear fins of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez. A wall of mechanics is responsible for hiding the modifications made.

Regarding the timesheet, Esteban Ocon is the first driver to complete a lap. On medium tires, the Alpine rider signed a 1’24 “864 which is close to his best performance in FP2. Lando Norris, who is the only one to accompany the Frenchman on the track, is eight tenths behind on the soft tires.

Very quickly, the duo was joined by other drivers, including Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. The Finn takes the lead with a time of 1’24 “019 set on soft tires. Equipped with red tires, Hamilton is ahead of his teammate by 69 thousandths of a second (1’23” 950). But it was Fernando Alonso on medium tires who did even better: 1’23 “904 for the double World Champion.

That time could have been beaten by Sergio Pérez, who set the record in the second sector, but the Mexican went off the track at high speed at turn 15, damaging his front wing. Pérez is not the only member of the Red Bull galaxy to take his feet in the carpet since Pierre Gasly spins on an installation lap. The Frenchman is doing well, only his soft tires have suffered in this figure.

Shortly after the mid-session mark, the Mercedes and Verstappen drivers battle for the best time. The W12s are the first to strike. In a second attempt on soft tires, Bottas scored a 1’23 “387, Hamilton a 1’23” 152. Also on soft tires, Verstappen responded by beating the all-time Losail circuit record on his first attempt (1’23 “121). A few minutes later, all three fell below 83 seconds, Bottas advantage (1 ‘ 22 “573), who are respectively eight hundredths and four tenths ahead of Hamilton and Verstappen. Gasly refereed this truel by signing a 1’22 “721 but the Frenchman’s time was canceled due to the non-respect of the limits of the track.

Pierre Gasly was once again very fast

Note that medium tires are not shunned during this session. Yuki Tsunoda was temporarily the fastest of the men on medium tires (1’23 “567) before being beaten by Alonso (1’23” 445). Ocon as well as the Williams pilots and Aston Martin yellow-sided envelopes are also worn.

The last minutes are however devoted to the qualifying simulations, therefore all the pilots put on the soft tires. Charles Leclerc set off in the same place as Gasly but, unlike the AlphaTauri pilot, the Monegasque went through the gravel trap. Once the yellow flag was raised, Hamilton returned to the lead with a 1’22 “388. Definitely very fit, Bottas improved in 1’22” 310.

This was already the case on Friday, we see the upper plane of Verstappen’s rear wing waving at the end of the DRS zone of the circuit, a scene which does not occur with the other drivers. The Red Bull mechanics are therefore busy on the wing of the Dutchman for long minutes and send him back to the track for the last five minutes. His last attempt in 1’22 “651 is certainly better but it does not threaten the Mercedes drivers.

The session ends and no one comes to beat Bottas’ time. The Finn completed a second session in a row with the fastest time, Hamilton following closely behind. Verstappen is more than three tenths behind, Gasly separates the Dutchman from his teammate. Sainz, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Tsunoda round out the top 10.

Qatar Qatar Grand Prix – Free Practice 3