Mercedes aims for perfect Saturday: Chiense qualifying preview

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton go into qualifying self-assuredly on the front foot after three problem-free practice sessions in Shanghai.

Lewis Hamilton showed no sign of weakness by Saturday afternoon, leading the hour-long FP3 and holding the weekend-best time of 1 minute 37.219 seconds from FP2.

Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg closed the 1.1 second Friday gap to just two-tenths of a second on Saturday, but nonetheless heads into qualifying as the Mercedes drive most vulnerable to his competitors.

Hamilton, however, never completed an entire flying lap during final practice, hinting that he has more pace in hand.

Despite the cool Chinese weather handing Mercedes a reprieve from the tyre wear triggered by Malaysia’s tropical heat last race, Ferrari still demonstrated superior long-run pace throughout practice.

Though the Scuderia is likely to settle onto the second row of the grid, the Ferrari–Mercedes battle this evening will be fought on tyre choice. Mercedes will seek to keep its options open by minimising its use of the soft tyre during qualifying to guard against the Ferrari car’s ability to eek extra pace from the Pirelli rubber over a race distance.

Sebastian Vettel holds a slim advantage over teammate Kimi Räikkönen after three practice sessions, but braking issues disrupted the Finn’s preparations.

Räikkönen complained on Friday of the car pulling to the left under brakes, which the pit wall told him was a “known issue”. The problem was rectified in time for FP2, and didn’t seem to affect his running during FP3.

The fight is on for the third quickest of the round between Red Bull Racing and Williams after both teams found themselves significantly off their expected pace levels in Malaysia.

Williams brought aerodynamic upgrades and new suspension components to China, but Felipe Massa experienced a suspected stalled rear wing on Friday afternoon that pitched his car off the track at the end of the back straight.

Damage was thankfully minimal, with only a new front wing, of which there was only one specification per driver, written off. The team said the new part was worth only a tiny amount of time compared to the previous specification, and Massa found himself just two tenths of a second down after FP3.

Red Bull Racing, meanwhile, continued to suffer from brake problems after a Malaysian Grand Prix plagued by similar issues.

Both Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat spent more time than expected in their garages with their cars hooked up to brake coolers. The team changed component suppliers — switching Hitco brakes for last year’s Brembo units — but the swap made little difference.

Despite Red Bull continuing to claim its Renault engine disadvantage when it comes to the power stakes, there was nothing between it and Williams in sector three, which comprises the entire back straight.

The four-time world champion also seems to have an edge on tyre wear, with Williams confirming it lacks downforce to maximise tyre life, signalling a potential return to something resembling competitiveness for Red Bull this weekend.

McLaren, after spending much of Friday running in the top ten, ended Saturday practice demoralised after Fernando Alonso’s Honda engine failed on his first lap of the session.

The Woking team has its work cut out for it to prepare the car for qualifying to confirm its latest development work on its ailing 2015 car.

Qualifying for the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix starts at 5PM AEST. Follow all the action on #ABCF1.