Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton has staked his claim for pole position later today in a closely fought Saturday morning practice, pipping Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen by just 0.093 seconds.
The Briton’s lap came late in the session after Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley triggered a 13-minute suspension when a front-left suspension failure pitched the Kiwi into a frightening high-speed crash with the barriers at the end of the Wellington straight.
In a smash not dissimilar to Sebastian Buemi’s dramatic double front suspension failure at the 2010 British Grand Prix while racing for the same team, the suspension component on Hartley’s car failed at speed with no obvious cause. The Toro Rosso driver was on his first flying lap.
Hartley was sent immediately to the medical centre, where he was given the all-clear.
His teammate, Pierre Gasly, wasn’t sent out for the rest of the session as the team investigated the cause of the failure.
When on-track action resumed Kimi Raikkonen initially set the pace, only to be usurped by Hamilton by less than a tenth of a second.
The two world champions were in a league of their own. Valtteri Bottas was third fastest in the second Mercedes but was 0.642 off the pace, while Sebastian Vettel, the fastest driver in Friday afternoon practice, was a whopping 1.129 seconds slower than Hamilton.
The Red Bull Racing cars struggled, even if their finals times were only fractionally slower than Vettel’s best efforts. Max Verstappen led Daniel Ricciardo, the pair 1.2 seconds off the benchmark.
Th surprise performers of the morning were Sauber drivers Charles Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson, who converted early weekend quiet confidence into the seventh and tenth-fastest times of final practice. Particularly impressive was Leclerc, who was only 0.2 second slower than the Red Bull Racing pair.
Haas duo Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were sandwiched between the Sauber cars in eighth and ninth. Free practice three constituted Grosjean’s first track time since Friday morning, when he binned his car at turn one after deactivated his DRS too late, damaging his chassis too severely to be repaired in time for FP2.
Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez followed in 11th and 12th ahead of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Sauber duo Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz.
Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin gave home fans of their Williams team little smile about from 15th and 16th, more than three seconds off the pace, while Stoffel Vandoorne put the second McLaren effectively last for the session in 18th ahead of only the Toro Rosso drivers.